Ice makes oil spills harder to detect, easier to contain


Line 5 carries nearly 23 million gallons of crude oil and natural gas each day from Superior, Wisconsin, through Michigan and on to Sarnia, Ontario. Image: Enbridge Inc.

By Cameryn Cass

What happens if oil spills under ice in freshwater?

“People imagine that the risk is greater with a spill under ice, but there’s actually a lot of cases in which it might be helped by ice,” said Douglas Bessette, the lead author of a 2021 study published in the Journal of Great Lakes Research that examined that problem.

There hasn’t been much attention paid to oil’s behavior in icy, freshwater conditions, so the study explored that, said Bessette. It also surveyed the public to gauge their perception of the risks posed by a petroleum pipeline that crosses the Straits of Mackinac – a major shipping channel – located between Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas.

The ice can contain the oil, making for an easier cleanup – but it’s harder to detect, the researchers said.

The study was prompted when a freighter’s anchor in 2018 struck and dented the pipeline.

At 645 miles long, the Line 5 pipeline spans Michigan. It’s operated by Enbridge, a Canadian natural gas company, and most of the petroleum products it moves are just cutting through the state on their way to Canada, said Stephen Hamilton, a professor of ecosystem ecology and biogeochemistry at Michigan State University.

A broad estimate is that about 30 percent of the oil Line 5 carries goes to Michigan, Ryan Duffy, an Enbridge communications and media relations strategist, wrote in an email. He said that a more precise estimate is that the pipeline delivers 14 million gallons of product daily to a region that includes Ontario, Pennsylvania, Ohio and  Michigan.

By 2063, there’s a 1 in 60 chance of the pipeline failing, the study said.

Over half of the Michiganders surveyed in the study were extremely concerned about an oil spill at the straits. Most preferred that the almost 70-year-old pipeline be shut down.

Michigan aims to be carbon neutral by 2050 and environmentalists say the pipeline isn’t aligned with that goal. It pumps petroleum and could be shut down altogether if the state ramps up its transition to renewable energy sources, said Kathie Brosemer, an environmental program manager with the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

“If we just do a tiny bit of decarbonizing our economy, this pipeline can be shut off,” Brosemer said.

Another anchor strike or oil spill under ice is unlikely since fewer ships go through the straits during the winter, said Bessette, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Community Sustainability at Michigan State University.

“But if there were to be a strike, do we have the capabilities in place to actually deal with it?” Bessette said.

Enbridge, the company operating the pipeline, says yes.

It has already practiced winter emergency response in conjunction with the U.S. Coast Guard,  Duffy said. The company has the training, people and resources to respond quickly in the unlikely event of a spill.

The most controversial part of the entire pipeline is the four and a half miles that travel under the Straits of Mackinac, Bessette said.

The area is home to 60,000 acres of critical wetland and sensitive habitats for native animals and migrating waterfowl, 47 of which are acknowledged for need of conservation, according to a recent study.

Water at the straits flows back and forth between lakes Michigan and Huron at up to three feet per second, according to the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.

In the event of a spill, such movement would widely disperse the oil.

“There are locations where even a small spill can have large consequences and can quickly go from something small to something large,” said Doug McLaughlin, the executive director of the Kalamazoo River Watershed. In 2010 that watershed had one of the largest inland oil spills in American history when an Enbridge-operated pipeline spilled there.

“It’s hard to get behind the straits as an ideal location because there’s so much at risk,” McLaughlin said.

Beyond the environmental risk, there’s major economic risk, the study reported. The state’s tourism industry, which is heavily centered on promoting natural resources that create a “Pure Michigan,” would take an estimated $4.8 billion hit in the event of a Line 5 spill.

The estimate doesn’t account for a change in perception of contaminated coasts, which might linger even after restoration efforts.

“A spill is extremely unlikely, but because of the straits and those currents and the tourism industry and tribal concerns – I mean, were there to be a spill, it would be catastrophic,” Bessette said.

For nearly five years after the Kalamazoo River oil spill, people stayed away from the river because they didn’t know what they’d find, said Cheryl Vosburg, who helped with the river’s restoration and is now the executive director of the Michigan Water Environment Association.

The river was closed for two years and Enbridge spent over $1 billion cleaning it up.

“But I think now, if you didn’t know an oil spill had happened there, you wouldn’t know by looking at it,” Vosburg said.

To prevent a future spill, Enbridge has invested more than $8 billion on maintenance, detection and leak prevention, Duffy said.

Though the restoration has been largely successful, how much Enbridge has done and continues to do is speculation, McLaughlin said.

“I haven’t seen that it’s not happening – at least from Enbridge – but I don’t have enough information to know that it is happening,” McLaughlin said.

At the straits, Enbridge is two permits away from building what it says is a $500 million tunnel to enclose the controversial 4.5 miles of pipeline that span the straits. To the company, it’s the solution that mitigates the risk of a spill.

Others disagree.

“Yes. If your field of view is only the straits itself, then maybe it’s a solution. But not if your field of view is Michigan,” said Brosemer, of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

The tunnel neglects the remaining 640 miles of pipeline. Plus, it invests billions of dollars into brown energy, Brosemer said.

The Native American tribes near the pipeline want it shut down. But it’s been hard to get their message out, even though they’re supposed to co-manage fisheries at the straits with the state, Brosemer said. They’re rarely, if ever, consulted in decisions.

“The state is holding all the cards in decision-making,” said Brosemer. “This process is colonialism at its worst.”

In May 2021, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered that Line 5 be shut down, but Enbridge refused and continued business as usual. The issue is held up in federal courts.

“The stalling is profitable,” said Hamilton. “As long as the status quo is maintained, they continue to make a lot of money.”

Brosemer says Enbridge’s Great Lakes Tunnel project is another stalling tactic.

“They’re not going to build that tunnel,” Brosemer said. “If they do invest billions into an aging pipeline, the risk doesn’t change in the rest of the pipeline.”

Plus, investing so much in brown energy does nothing to mitigate the looming climate catastrophe, Brosemer said.

“In a lot of these kinds of questions, sustainability is the underlying goal. And sustainability shouldn’t be flopping back and forth between a massive environmental disaster and recovery of that disaster,” said McLaughlin. “We need to try and maintain a quality environment over the long run.”

This story was updated 12/24/22 to correct the cost of the tunnel project and to include an estimate of the amount of product it delivers to the region that includes Michigan.

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