Column: Just buy a couple boats and patrol over the pipeline, dammit!

On June 27, what has become a familiar refrain rang across the interwebs. Another group is asking the courts to shut down a Canadian pipeline.

This one was very different, however. It wasn’t environmentalist earthmuffins using lawyers to metaphorically lay in front of bulldozers for a new pipeline project. Quite the opposite. It was none other than the attorney general of the State of Michigan, seeking to shut down 66-year old dual 20-inch pipelines that cross between the upper and lower peninsulas of that state, at the Straits of Mackinac.

You see, after 66 years of operation, the great State of Michigan is suddenly concerned about some bozo dropping an anchor on one of these pipelines which lay across the lake bottom, puncturing it and causing it to spill untold thousands of barrels of oil into the Great Lakes, causing an environmental disaster of unimaginable proportions.

Why are they suddenly concerned? As their press release stated, “An April 2018 anchor dragging incident – which ripped through several inches-thick steel cables – brought that threat home in a very real way.

“Although Line 5 was damaged – not ruptured – in that incident because the anchor hit a section lying directly on the bottomlands, if the anchor had dragged across the bottom of the Straits in an area where Line 5 is elevated, the likely result would have been a complete rupture of Line 5,” the release said.

This pipeline might run through Michigan, but it is vitally important to Canada. The 30-inch Line 5 runs from Superior, Wisconsin, through the upper peninsula of Michigan to the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron. (Apparently it is split into dual pipelines for the crossing, then back into one).

It then passes through Michigan and crosses the St. Claire River, terminating at the refinery complex in Sarnia, Ontario. The 1,038 kilometre pipeline carries light crude and natural gas liquids (NGLs). Shutting down the pipeline would result in cutting off the feedstock for one of Canada’s critical refining centres.

As I noted in my story on this, Enbridge has sought to construct a new tunnel up to 30 metres under the strait as a conduit for new, replacement pipelines deep under the strait, as opposed to the current pipeline lying on the lake bottom. The current state government of Michigan is against that proposal, too, despite an agreement with the previous state administration to build the US$500 million tunnel.

A 2010 spill from that pipeline into the Kalamazoo River had a direct impact on Saskatchewan oil producers while that line was out of operation.

And this is where the importance to Saskatchewan comes into play. After that 2010 spill and pipeline shutdown, Crescent Point Energy Corp. made sure that each and every one of their significant operating areas had the ability to ship crude by rail. They emphasized that point in their quarterly news releases for years. These days, they aren’t doing that, nor are they using rail. The Stoughton rail loading facility is currently mothballed.

Michigan is adamant it does not want these existing lines to remain in operation while a new tunnel is dug. They want them shut down, now.

This got me thinking: if the most pressing danger is some moron dropping anchor on one of these pipelines, why not just buy a few boats and have them constantly in the water, above these lines, warning idiots to not drop their anchors on a pipeline? According to Google Earth, where you can actually see the paths the pipelines take, it’s only about six kilometres across. If the U.S. Coast Guard doesn’t want to do it, then Enbridge could hire a few boats for 24 hour coverage. “Don’t drop anchor here, you moron!” they could broadcast on loudspeakers. For a pipeline that moves over half a million barrels of oil per day, surely they can put a few gallons of gas in a few boats.

But no, the State, in all its wisdom, wishes to shut this pipeline down.

I don’t know what their motivations are. Perhaps they wanted to be rid of this major pipeline ever since the 2010 spill, eliminating any possibility of another spill anywhere, including the straits. Maybe they think, at 66 years old, that pipeline is due to burst at any time. Maybe they don’t give a damn about the Canadian refineries, just across the St. Clair River at Sarnia, which depend on that pipeline. Or maybe they forgot that Michigan, too, has oil production, in the northern part of the lower peninsula. (Betcha didn’t know that, did ya? If you look about 120 kilometres south of where the pipelines crosses the straits, you can find all sorts of pumpjacks producing a total of 13,000 barrels per day).

Undersea crossings of cables, if not pipelines, were a big deal in the Cold War. The U.S. used “special projects” spy submarines to tap into undersea telephone cables near Russian submarine bases, in an operation called “Ivy Bells.” How did they find those cables? One American, Capt. James Bradley, realized that wherever cables cross rivers or oceans, someone puts up a sign on shore saying something like, “Do not anchor here, underwater cable crossing.” Sure enough, they found the Soviet signs, followed the Soviet cables, and did their dirty work.

If something as simple as a sign is used to prevent anchor strikes elsewhere, couldn’t Enbridge be allowed to use a few boats to patrol over this pipeline? Come on. Buy some boats, build the tunnel, and end this.

 

Brian Zinchuk is editor of Pipeline News. He can be reached at brian.zinchuk@sasktel.net.

 

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