We’re still not done with Larry Springer’s astonishing statement in Wednesday’s Inside Climate News article. We hope to return to that series later today. We’re taking a break from it to report on last night’s very interesting meeting between Enbridge representatives and the Brandon Township Board of Trustees. It was a fascinating and illuminating three hours. There’s an awful lot to get through here. Hang on to your hats; this one’s a doozy.  

First, a little background to get everyone up to speed. On August 31st, evidently in response to Brandon Township’s resolution (although they make no mention of the resolution), Enbridge sent a letter to Brandon Supervisor Kathy Thurman (and others). The basic point of the letter is that the Brandon trustees don’t know what they’re talking about. The letter states:

Enbridge disagrees with the assertion that the design of the replacement segments falls short of enhancements that Enbridge committed to on another project crossing the Rocky Mountains in remote areas of Alberta and British Columbia, Canada. There is no substance to this claim.

The letter then goes on to provide some technical details of the Line 6B pipeline and some of its safety features– and how these may (or may not) relate to Northern Gateway. Then, the day of the Groveland Township meeting (Sept. 10th), they issued a new document, which appears to be a scrubbed version of the letter. For instance, gone from the new document is this very strange paragraph:

Enbridge is aware that you may have recently been contacted by an organization named POLAR Legal Defense Fun or the Field Law Group, PLLC about the Line 6B projects. Building on the 43 years Line 6B has operated in the Township, Enbridge looks forward to continuing to work cooperatively with the Township and provides the following additional information about the Line 6B projects.

Why the mention of POLAR here? What does POLAR have to do with the 43 years the pipeline has operated in Brandon? What does POLAR have to do with the Brandon Township resolution? The answer, of course, is nothing. The only explanation I can think of to explain the bizarre insertion of that sentence into the letter is that it is another example of Enbridge’s attempt, as we wrote just the other day, to cast any questioning of the Line 6B project as the unreasonable rabble-rousings of “special interest groups.”

But I digress. The “workshop” was an extension of these two documents, a chance for the Brandon trustees to further understand the information contained in the documents and to ask follow-up questions. This is important because the meeting was clearly NOT about whether or not Enbridge would comply with the conditions of the Brandon resolution (more on this in a minute).

Four Enbridge representatives participated in the workshop: Joe Martucci, another spokeswoman (whose name I did not catch; I’d never seen nor heard of her before), attorney Mike Ashton, and Project Manager Thomas Hodge. Another spokesman, Jason Manshum, also showed up partway through the meeting and sat in the audience. But it was Hodge’s meeting from start to finish.

And in fairness, we will say this: Tom Hodge is the most credible, knowledgeable, straight-shooting Enbridge representative we have seen. He was not entirely free from evasions, but for the most part, we found him to be refreshingly forthright, prone to none of the platitudes, equivocations, and obfuscations we’ve become accustomed to from Joe Martucci and Mike Ashton, and Enbridge right-of-way agents. In fact, we learned more from Hodge in three hours than we’ve learned from all the other Enbridge representatives combined in eight months. Hodge even did the unthinkable and acknowledged Marshall, at one point even going so far as saying, “[People] have a right to be mad at us.” He also said several times, “We wanna be a good neighbor.” Frankly, in our opinion, Enbridge would be much better off with Hodge as its spokesman.

As the meeting began, we learned– and this is not at all surprising– that Enbridge originally wanted to meet only with Kathy Thurman. However, Thurman though it important that all of the trustees be present, which presumably meant that the meeting had to be open to the public. And because the meeting was open to the public, the trustees decided to amend the agenda to allow public questions at the start (rather than just public comments at the end). So we asked three direct questions:

  1. Is Brandon Township considered a “High Consequence Area (HCA)”? According to federal regulations, HCAs warrant additional safety precautions, so the designation is an important one.
  2. Which of the items– specifically– on the comparison document that Enbridge sent exceed U.S. federal regulations? This is important because Enbridge claims that both Line 6B and Northern Gateway “have enhanced safety measures beyond the minimum required for the planned service of the pipeline and country-specific reulations and codes in which the pipeline will operate.”
  3. Finally, in the event that Enbridge were to reactivate the old pipe (which they say they have “no plans” to do), would reactivation require MPSC approval or notification of stakeholders?

As the meeting proceeded, going point by point through the items in the Brandon resolution, the trustees asked each of our questions, along with many, many others. And while a great many complicated matters were clarified, Enbridge had no answers– literally– to our questions. They did not know whether Brandon Township was designated a High Consequence Area. They did not provide a specific list of Line 6B features that exceed U.S. federal regulations. And they were not certain whether reactivation of the line would necessitate seeking MPSC approval– although on this last point they did imply that it probably would (we are looking into this question ourselves).

Since the Brandon resolution requires Enbridge to adhere to safety standards on Line 6B comparable to its Canadian Northern Gateway project, the most time was spent on this matter. What we learned is that in Canada, Enbridge has pledged to operate its Northern Gateway pipeline at yield strength safety margin comparable to those in the U.S., since it is actually the U.S. standards that are stricter. (We won’t bore you with all the details. Suffice it to say that there is a formula involving pipe diameter and wall thickness that determines what volume of oil can be pumped at what pressure through the pipe).

This is a crucial point, since it forms the basis of Enbridge’s argument that Brandon Township is mistaken about whether the “enhancements” to Line 6B fall short of Northern Gateway. If only it were that simple.

This discussion about wall thicknesses and operating pressure and wetland crossings and other matters raised by the items in the Brandon resolution took considerable time. But none of it really addressed the elephant in the room: the lingering question of “local consent.” When the question was raised explicitly (by Treasurer Tyrone Beltramo), Enbridge’s tone suddenly changed. Hodge certainly didn’t want to talk about it. And attorney Mike Ashton stepped in, pretending that he wasn’t sure what Beltramo was referring to and insisting that everybody stay focused on the construction-related matters. The question was not pressed further.

There was a similar change of tone when it came to other specific provisions of the resolution. On the question of the deactivated pipe, there was a lot of talk– the same assurances about how Enbridge has no plans to reactivate it in the future that we’ve heard before, along with some remarks about what a long and involved process it would be to reactivate it. But when asked point-blank whether they would guarantee that the pipe would not be used in the future, Enbridge hedged. All of the Enbridge reps seated at the table stated that they had no knowledge of Enbridge ever reactivating a decommissioned pipe. And Hodge said, “there are no guarantees in life”– a fine sounding cliche, but something that just isn’t true. “Guarantees in life” are precisely what legally binding document are for.

The same pattern of evasion occurred over the question of compensation for additional usage of Township roads. There was a lot of cross talk at this point and here Joe Martucci stepped in to tell us about all the marvelous ways Enbridge supports its host communities and Hodge once again reminded us of how they “wanna be a good neighbor.” But there was absolutely no commitment on the part of Enbridge to compensate Brandon for additional use of township roads or the inconvenience caused by construction and road closures.

So: what do we take away from all of this? What will the Brandon Trustees take away from this? We don’t know the answer to the second question, but for ourselves, we’ll say this:

  • Enbridge presented themselves at the meeting as friendly neighbors, eager to cooperate. However, it’s important to remember that (1) they could have held this meeting six months ago. The only reason they agreed to it now is because Brandon forced their hand with a resolution (and a fair amount of press coverage); they were, at best, reluctant to attend such a meeting. And (2) Enbridge came only partially prepared to answer all of Brandon’s questions. They did not come to that meeting to agree to– or even to consider– ANY of Brandon’s conditions. They came only to tell the board how they will do things not to comply or compromise.
  • As to the crucial matter of the Northern Gateway-Line 6B comparison, one might be persuaded by Enbridge’s insistence– and in general, we have no reason not to believe Tom Hodge about this– that when it comes to wall thicknesses and operating pressures the Line 6B standards are technically very similar to the “enhanced” measures for Northern Gateway. However, what we really learned last night is this: that when it comes to Northern Gateway, Enbridge has been willing to alter its plans based on the input of local stakeholders (see, for example, Enbridge’s “Commitment to Public Engagement Fact Sheet,” which we’ll be writing about soon) . So much so, in fact, that they have agreed to exceed Canadian regulatory requirements. When it comes to Michigan, however, Enbridge is not willing to do the same. They will not alter their plans based on the input of local municipalities like Brandon Township or Howell. They will not, for example, install an additional safety valve in Brandon. Nor is it at all clear whether anything they are doing on Line 6B exceeds any U.S. federal requirements. To be sure, Enbridge will meet U.S. regulatory requirements, but exactly where they exceed PHMSA requirements remains unclear.

On the whole, we left the meeting with lingering concerns about the protection of the unique conditions of northern Oakland County, such as our wetlands, headwaters, and drinking wells. We know that the members of the Brandon board share these concerns.