The Canadian oil end game
We try to stay focused and disciplined here at the Line 6B Citizens’ Blog. That is, while like most everybody else we’ve got lots of opinions about lots of things, we prefer not wander too much into areas that lie outside what we see as our primary mission here: helping landowners by keeping them informed about Line 6B matters, nudging and bugging public officials to pay more attention to the Line 6B project, and doing everything we can to try and get Enbridge to abide by their own professed values.
On the other hand, it’s not as though we aren’t keenly interested in related things: the implications of increased production and transportation of diluted bitumen, care for the environment and our natural resources, fracking, natural gas and pipeline safety across the country, property rights, U.S. energy policy, and so on.
Case in point: the controversial Keystone XL project. Like many others, Keystone has been on our mind lately, especially over the weekend while reading and hearing about the remarkable “Forward on Climate” march on Washington D.C., which was attended by some of our friends and by plenty of good folks from Michigan. Honestly, we found the fervor and excitement of that rally– observing from afar– pretty thrilling. Elizabeth Shope’s account of the rally over at the NRDC Switchboard blog nicely captures some of that thrill.
Perhaps our favorite moment came during the remarks of Chief Jacqueline Thomas of the Saik’uz First Nation in Canada who said that “Enbridge really has brought our communities together” and then, “Never in my life have I ever seen white and native work together until now [Cheers]. Thank you, Enbridge, for doing this work for me.” This captures something of our own experience: the way Enbridge also turned us into activists and brought us together with lots of wonderful people (you know who you are!) we otherwise never would have known.
Here’s the video of Chief Thomas:
Anyway, it’s not as if we haven’t been thinking about Keystone for a long time. Frankly, when it comes to Canadian oil pipeline matters, it’s hard not to. In fact, for us, the prominence of KXL has sometimes been an impediment to getting people to pay attention to Line 6B; just recall our now-infamous, painfully funny Debbie Stabenow story. At the same time, we’ve also tried to explain to everyone who will listen (not a very large population, we assure you) that anyone concerned about KXL should be equally concerned about Enbridge and Line 6B. It’s just that Enbridge has been lucky (and clever) enough to find ways to skirt the presidential permitting process.
Interestingly, the very same week as the Forward on Climate rally, came news that demonstrates yet another way that Enbridge (and Line 6B) and Keystone XL are related. Enbridge is partnering with a Texas firm to convert hundreds of miles of natural gas pipelines to carry heavy crude. The project– which just last year Michigan Governor Rick Snyder opposed–is part of Enbridge’s strategy to transport diluted bitumen down to the U.S. Gulf Coast and to New England. Line 6B, which Enbridge has always insisted has mainly to do with getting more product to the Marathon refinery in Detroit, is an important part of this strategy, as it connects to planned expansion lines headed to both the Gulf Coast and to eastern ports (see p. 11).
The reason for all of these conversions and expansions? Both Enbridge and TransCanada, the company behind KXL, are looking for ways to get the glut of Canadian tar sands oil to new markets and thereby increase its currently low price. And despite what know-nothings like Enbridge mascot Dr. Michael Milan will tell you, this Canadian oil end game, which will undoubtedly be great for Enbridge and TransCanada, is NOT likely to benefit consumers in Michigan in the form of, say, lower gas prices. Quite the contrary. And none of this, by the way– the conversions, expansions, and creative strategizing on the part of pipeline operators– helps lay to rest any lingering concerns we might have about the potential re-use of the exiting Line 6B.
As we said at the start, all of this lies a bit beyond our immediate purview; there are plenty of people who know a lot more about this stuff than we do. In fact, for some of this discussion we’re indebted to our friend Beth Wallace, who we learn from all the time, and to journalist Elana Schor, who is as smart and knowledgeable on these matters as anybody in the country. In fact, a recent excellent and provocative piece by Elana about Keystone is largely what got us thinking more about these matters. It should be required reading. Without dismissing legitimate concerns about climate change, Elana also suggests that framing opposition to Keystone XL only in those terms potentially “diverts public attention from a more immediate, less well-understood hazard: It’s not clear that federal regulators can ensure the pipeline will run safely if it is approved.” She points out further that,
killing the pipeline [KXL] will slow the march of oil-sands development for good. Resistance already has prompted oil companies to consider alternative shipment plans, from using railcars and barges to expanding Midwestern pipe networks owned by Enbridge, a TransCanada competitor. You may remember Enbridge from the costliest onshore oil spill in U.S. history, caused by a corroded Michigan pipe that leaked more than 800,000 gallons of Canadian oil in 2010. The National Transportation Safety Board found that 81 percent of that oil gushed after Enbridge employees misread alarms along their purportedly state-of-the-art system and twice tried to restart the pipeline.
Here’s where the safety risks surrounding KXL — the ones that play second fiddle to talk of oil-sands emissions — come into play. TransCanada’s first line of defense is the same technology that failed to stop the Enbridge spill, but even if it works perfectly, as much as 2 percent of the pipeline’s daily volume could escape from tiny leaks that are hard to detect. While that number sounds small, a 1-percent leak from KXL would gush as many as 8,300 barrels of oil per day and cause a spill three times the size of the Michigan disaster within a week.
We will continue to keep an eye on all of these matters and we’ll continue to try and remind people why Line 6B deserves as much attention and scrutiny as Keystone XL. We will also continue to appreciate, admire, and learn from all the good people– landowners, activists, thoughtful journalists– and organizations– like Bold Nebraska, the NRDC, and the National Wildlife Federation, and the Pipeline Safety Trust— working so hard to protect the public interest.