As we reported last week, the Department of Justice and Enbridge have reached finally reached a settlement in the Marshall spill. For reasons we described in our post, we don’t think the settlement is at all satisfactory. And we’re not alone. In an excellent Smart Pig blog post, Rebecca Craven of the Pipeline Safety Trust also outlines some of the areas where the settlement appears to fall short. Our own view is that, in many ways, the settlement is quite advantageous to Enbridge.
However, there is one bit of good news in the settlement that we neglected to mention: it clearly prohibits Enbridge from ever re-using the original Line 6B. You might recall that this is something many of us in Michigan asked for repeatedly prior to construction of the new Line. But Enbridge always hedged. Now, that line will be decommissioned permanently, which is very good news indeed. Of course, even that injunction is less than ideal: it should have been part of the terms of approval of the new line and Enbridge should have been required to remove it, rather than leaving it in the ground.
Which brings us back to the consent decree. You see, as we mentioned in our last post, the proposed settlement contains a number of provisions relating to Enbridge’s Line 3 project in Minnesota, a project that might well induce in Michiganders a terrifying sense of déjà vu. Like Line 6B, Line 3 is old and deteriorating. The consent decree requires Enbridge to replace it and decommission the original Line 3. But this is in no way an onerous requirement for Enbridge and it certainly isn’t punishment. That’s because Enbridge already planned to “replace” the line. But as with Line 6B, they aren’t really “replacing” the line. Instead, they’re building a brand new one—an even bigger one—and they want to build it in a different location. Yes, you read that correctly: a larger diameter pipeline in a different location. To call that a replacement is an abuse of language. It’s also a very clever way of skirting the requirements of their presidential permit for that line—a replay of their Line 6B strategy.
But the Line 3 boondoggle is even worse than the Line 6B replacement. That’s because the consent decree does not require the permanent decommissioning of the original Line 3. Instead, it lays out a number of conditions that would allow Enbridge to continue to operate it. That’s deeply troubling. If that line is going to be decommissioned, we agree with our friends in Minnesota that it should be taken out of the ground, just as should have been done with Line 3 (in fact, you can support their efforts by signing this petition). But instead, the settlement leaves open the possibility of allowing Enbridge to operate both a new Line 3 in a new location and the old Line 3. As a result, Enbridge, cunningly, seems to have negotiated an agreement with the Department of Justice that essentially rewards them for the costliest inland oil spill in U.S. history.
But here’s the (potentially) good news: the settlement is not yet final. The public has 30 days to comment on it. We urge you to do so. In particular, we urge you to ask the DoJ to remove the Line 3 provisions altogether. After all, what do those things have to do with affairs in Michigan in the first place? You might also encourage DoJ to file criminal charges and to require Supplemental Environmental Projects that could benefit Michigan. Lastly, you might ask for some tougher requirements with regard to Line 5. Instead of giving them tacit permission to continue to operate those lines, Enbridge should have to generate a plan to shut down and remove those dangerous pipelines from beneath the Straits of Mackinac once and for all.
For more reasons you should oppose the Line 3 project and helpful links for commenting on the consent decree, visit this page from our friends at Honor the Earth.
We’re back from our period of dormancy to mark the sixth anniversary of the Marshall spill. (Yes, despite what Enbridge says, today is the anniversary!).
By now you have probably heard the news: last week the Department of Justice, at long last, has announced penalties against Enbridge for the devastating Marshall spill. Why it took six full years and why the penalties were a matter of negotiation, we will never understand. But setting that aside, we’ve got a few things to say about the substance of the so-called “settlement”:
First, you probably read that Enbridge has been “hit with a $177 million bill” or some such. Everybody seems to be seizing upon this $177 million figure, even those who have been most outspoken or dogged in documenting Enbridge’s misdeeds. But don’t believe it. Enbridge was not hit with a $177 million dollar bill. The DoJ levied a $61 million civil penalty— for violations of the Clean Water Act. They were also “hit” with another $1 million for another spill. And they are required to pay back another $5 million to the Oil Spill Liability Fund, which they drew from during the cleanup.
So why is everybody saying $177 million? Well, it’s because Enbridge and DoJ estimate that it’s going to cost Enbridge an additional $110 million to comply with a number of provisions in the settlement, many of them having to do with safety tests of their pipeline network and others having to do with repairs and other costs.
But it’s a real stretch to pretend that money is some sort of penalty. After all, most of what the DoJ is requiring of Enbridge— hydrotests to assess the conditions of their pipelines, for instance— is stuff you’d expect them to be doing anyway. It’s the normal cost of operating pipelines.
Even worse, probably the largest chunk of that $110 million has to do with the replacement of Line 3, an aging pipeline Enbridge operates which runs from Neche, North Dakota to Superior, Wisconsin, which the consent decree requires. Trouble is, replacing that line is something Enbridge is already planning to do. So it’s a capital investment they are making anyway (or so they have hoped), regardless of what DoJ said.
Which brings us to our second point: as a provision in this settlement, the replacement of Line 3 is not a penalty. It’s a gift. In fact, it’s great news for Enbridge.
We told you a bit about Line 3 a long time ago. That proposed “replacement” project is an even greater boondoggle than the “replacement” of Line 6b was. That’s because Enbridge’s proposed route for the new Line 3 doesn’t even follow the same route as the original Line 3. It’s not a “replacement,” it’s new infrastructure. Enbridge wants to put that line in the same corridor as the proposed Sandpiper pipeline— a route that, as our friends at the Friends of the Headwaters know very well, is totally bonkers, as it threatens some of the most environmentally sensitive areas in the state.
Even worse, the route for the newly proposed Line 3 is identical to the route of the Sandpiper pipeline, which, frankly put, is just plain crazy. Our friends at the Friends of the Headwaters have explained why repeatedly— and convincingly.
So here’s the problem with the DoJ provision: it may well be that Line 3, an aging pipeline, needs to be replaced (just as Line 6b did). But that fact does not mean that Enbridge ought to get to do whatever it wants, however it wants. But that’s going to be exactly what happens now. Enbridge will use that provision as a cudgel to beat any sort of questions or opposition to that project into submission. Any questions anybody asks Enbridge about the Line 3 replacement (such as its route) are going to be met with “we’re legally obligated to do this according to the Department of Justice, so just shut up.” Essentially, that provision gives Enbridge’s Line 3 plans federal blessing.
The third problem with the settlement is the failure of the DoJ to file any kind of criminal charges. Here it’s worth remembering some basic facts (all readily available in the NTSB report from 2011): Enbridge knew about defects in Line 6b for five years, but chose to do nothing about them. For years, Enbridge fostered a “culture of deviance” from its own safety protocols, which directly contributed to the Marshall disaster. As if that’s not bad enough, Enbridge’s control room operators knew there was a problem with Line 6b SEVENTEEN HOURS before shutting the pipeline down.
Letting Enbridge off the criminal hook is a slap in the face to the families whose lives were ruined by Enbridge’s documented negligence. Here we’ll just quote our friend Susan Connolly:
“Six years have passed with questions unanswered and concerns remain,” Susan Connolly, a local Michigan mother whose children suffered rashes as a result of the Kalamazoo spill, said in a statement. “The fines related to the Clean Water Act should not be in the form of a ‘settlement’ discussed and agreed to between the agencies and the at fault party. The maximum penalty should be ordered, criminal penalties assessed, and a Michigan Pipeline Trust created.”
Fourth, the feds missed an opportunity to make some lasting good out of this disaster. It is common in cases like this one, where businesses reach settlements with the feds for failures to comply with environmental laws, to create what are called Supplemental Environmental Projects (SEP), which are designed to help protect the environment. In a state as reliant on its marvelous natural resources, it is frankly shocking that the settlement included no SEPs of any kind. This is a travesty.
Finally, the settlement includes a whole bunch of provisions related to Line 5. Mostly, these have to do with conducting tests to assess the condition of the lines and repairing any defects or problems with the pipelines’ supports or coverage. On the face of it, these seem like good measures (although, again, these are things Enbridge ought to be doing already). But as with Line 3, these provisions simply give Enbridge federal cover. In this case, cover to continue operating those lines indefinitely, when nearly everybody— even those whose judgement is generally suspect— now recognizes that those lines ought to be shut down and decommissioned permanently. But now Enbridge gets to pretend like the federal government has given its approval for them to continue to operate Line 5. And, unfortunately, they’re right about that. They’ll now tell everybody that these federal mandates preempt any and all state and local authority.
As we (and plenty of others) have said repeatedly, the Marshall spill was not just an accident. It was not an honest mistake. It was the result of systemic problems and preventable actions. Those problems and actions destroyed properties, uprooted families, affected individuals’ health in ways we still don’t even understand. The DoJ’s consent decree does not even come close to redressing those actions; it certainly won’t do anything to deter Enbridge from continuing to operate as it always has. Quite the contrary: given the modesty of the penalty and the friendly Line 3 and Line 5 provisions, the consent decree, six years in the making, rewards Enbridge’s behavior.
We left off yesterday’s post about ET Rover’s recent meetings with local officials by expressing some concern about whether some of those officials are equipped– for whatever reasons– to adequately inform and assist landowners. So far, we’ve been very impressed with the willingness of several township officials to speak out forcefully against Rover and the company’s shabby treatment of pretty much everyone. But now that Rover has launched a charm offensive and is (presumably) doing some behind-the-scenes glad-handing, backslapping, and smoke-blowing, we’re a little nervous. We’ve seen before what that sort of thing can do.
Recent news reports have provided little comfort. In fact, judging from what we’ve read, the meetings have served only to confuse matters. It’s starting to look like our public officials are neither receiving nor providing citizens with reliable, accurate information. That’s why we’re also nervous about this week’s Town Hall meeting (Oct. 15 at Holly High School from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m). We have serious fears about the potential spread of bad information.
Here’s a run-down, with examples drawn from two recent news articles about last week’s meetings, of the kinds of imprecise or just plain wrong information that has us so very worried:
Is there anything local governments can do? Yes!
According to Susan Bromley at the Brandon Citizen, Groveland Township Supervisor Bob DePalma doesn’t think “any thing of worthwhile consequence was discussed.” (No surprise there.) But DePalma also told Susan Bromley of the Brandon Citizen that “They [ET Rover] fully realize the federal government has regulations on them, what we say or do has little benefit.” No doubt this is what ET Rover said. It’s the same line Enbridge used when they rolled into town: “pipelines are regulated at the federal level.” As we recall, DePalma accepted that line then just as he appears to accept it now.
In fairness, it’s not entirely clear what DePalma’s point is here, though we do fear it’s the same old shoulder-shrugging, helpless attitude we’ve seen from him before. Whatever the case, it is clearly NOT true that what township officials “say or do has little benefit.” Yes, FERC has ultimate approval of the pipeline project. But there are plenty of things township supervisors, state representatives, and citizens can do. One of them is registering their objections and concerns about this project publicly and with FERC. Another is working hard to provide accurate, reliable information about the project, the process, and the things landowners can do to protect themselves. That could benefit landowners tremendously if this project is approved.
Why did Rover re-route? Nobody really knows (except Rover, and they won’t tell it straight)
Unfortunately, we’re not sure whether DePalma can distinguish between accurate information and pipeline company spin. For example, DePalma also reports that ET Rover shifted their original route north “because it affected 53-54 homes that were going to have to be taken.” We don’t doubt that this is what Rover told him. The question is whether it’s true. In fact, we’re not sure what “53-54 homes were going to have to be taken” even means. It’s vague to the point of meaningless (more on this below). Nor is there any way to verify it.
ET Rover reps apparently repeated this story in their meeting with Lapeer County Commissioners, according to Maria Brown at the Tri-City Times:
Company officials told Lapeer County leaders on Tuesday that the route had been moved north from Oakland County where more than 50 homes would have had to be condemned since they had been built on an existing natural gas line easement.
As we said above, it’s not at all clear what this means, especially with the use of the word “condemn” here– which could suggest the legal process of condemnation (using eminent domain) but here seems to mean something more like destroy. Nor is it clear what “existing natural gas line easement” they’re talking about. The Vector pipeline? Are we to believe that homes have been built on top of the Vector (or some other) pipeline easement? And that somehow, originally, Rover thought they would build their pipeline in the same place? Both of those things seem impossible. So maybe the reporter got something mixed up here? Whatever the case, none of this makes much sense, which makes us awfully skeptical. Even worse, none of this, whatever the source of such poor information, is even remotely helpful to concerned landowners.
We’re even more skeptical of this comment from Lapeer Commissioner Dave Eady about the re-route: “It had nothing to do with politics or resolutions in opposition to the project,” Eady said. We have no doubt this is what ET Rover told Eady and the other commissioners. But surely Eady isn’t naive and gullible enough to believe it. Anyone can readily understand that ET Rover would never ever admit to moving the pipeline route because of landowner opposition; that would only invite landowner opposition elsewhere. So why in the world would he repeat that claim as if it were true? That’s frightening.
We feel a little better about the comment of Commissioner Lenny Schneider who notes, simply, “It’s not our job to take their word for it.” Hopefully, he has repeated that to his colleague Dave Eady.
How much gas will benefit Michiganders? Again, no one knows (and Rover won’t tell)
Even worse than the above are the (hollow) assurances ET Rover gave about where the gas they’ll transport is going. DePalma reports that contrary to initial reports, the natural gas is not mainly for Canadian export and “a good amount” of the natural gas transported by ET Rover will stay in Michigan. This statement only raises more questions:
What’s “a good amount”? Who decides what a good amount is? Is this what Rover reps said or is that DePalma’s characterization? Was DePalma able to verify that claim? Did Rover say exactly what percentage of the gas will stay in Michigan versus the amount that will be exported to Canada? We’re pretty sure that answer to those last three questions is “no.” Those are questions that are virtually impossible to answer. Answers to them may– if we’re lucky– be included in Rover’s application to FERC, which they plan to file in January. But since FERC doesn’t require that kind of information and because Rover doesn’t really want anybody to know (they’ll likely claim that it’s proprietary), chances are it won’t even be included there. We can’t say for sure, but it sounds like DePalma believes Rover when they say such things. But he shouldn’t. That’s what scares us.
Is Rover prohibited or even discouraged from routing their pipeline along a highway? No.
Here’s one reason DePalma shouldn’t believe the things ET Rover reps tell him. Evidently they told him this:
Rover representatives also explained that the reason the pipeline can’t follow a suggested route along the I-69 corridor is because close proximity to highways is discouraged for safety reasons.
Note here the passive construction “is discouraged” We have little doubt that this is exactly how ET Rover phrased it. It’s the sort of verbal construction we discourage our students from using, because unlike our sentence (where we say “we discourage”), the passive version omits the agent of the action. It begs the question of who, exactly, discourages routing pipelines along highways for safety reasons. The implication is that it’s some federal agency. But there are no federal guidelines on this matter. In fact, highway corridors are not even considered “high consequence areas.” Of course, this is not to say that it’s necessarily a good idea to build a pipeline along a highway. But doing so is no worse than building a pipeline in close proximity, say, to a school or suburban subdivision, yet that happens routinely. The point here is that companies like Rover are NOT “discouraged” for safety reasons from building pipelines along highways. They’re just saying that as a convenient excuse to stick with their preferred route.
Is there a deadline for public comments to FERC? No.
This one comes from Lapeer County Commissioner Lenny Schneider:
Schneider said the company can’t provide all the answers county officials want until land surveys are complete and considering this task might not be done by year’s end, which is also the public comment deadline; the county board seeks to go on the record with their concerns.
The first part of this is probably more or less true: some questions will be unanswerable until surveying is complete and the route is finalized with a bit more precision (although we suspect this is also another convenient way for Rover to evade questions). But the second part is absolutely NOT true. There is no year-end “deadline” for public comments. After Rover officially files its application with FERC, citizens have much more time and opportunity to comment— and they should do so. We don’t know where Schneider got the idea that public comment will be prohibited after the first of the year. But this is another example of how unreliable information gets disseminated.
Can FERC approve this project without giving Rover the power of eminent domain? No.
And one final bit of information to correct, this one also from the Lapeer Commissioners:
Commissioners are also urging the public and affected landowners to file their own concerns and complaints with the federal agency by year’s end, asking that the commission either halt the project or approve it without granting eminent domain. Without eminent domain, Energy Transfer would be required to negotiate with individual landowners for easement payments.
Now, we very much appreciate this sentiment. And we wish this were a realistic option (and in other cases, we’ve made a similar argument). But in this case, urging citizens to request approval without eminent domain demonstrates a basic misunderstanding of the FERC process. That’s because eminent domain is precisely what “approval” means. ET Rover is going to apply for a “Certificate of Public Necessity and Convenience.” According to the law, that means the authority to condemn. So ET Rover isn’t just asking for permission to build a pipeline. They’re asking for permission to build the pipeline with or without the approval of property owners in the pipeline’s route. In this context “approv[ing] it without granting eminent domain” simply does not make sense. By law, FERC cannot grant a certificate without eminent domain.
Obviously, these are not simple matters. And there is no reason to expect township supervisors and county commissioners to be experts on them. But it’s NOT too much to expect them to be deeply skeptical of what ET Rover tells them and to be careful about reporting what Rover says as fact. We’re going to do everything we can to make it to Wednesday’s Town Hall in the hopes of preventing (or correcting) the spread of inaccurate information. Stay tuned.
If you “like” us over on Facebook, you might know that on our annual vacation to Minnesota this year– yes, the one that takes us past the Enbridge offices in Superior, Wisconsin— we were lucky enough to speak to an extraordinary group of citizens embroiled in their own battle with Enbridge. The Friends of the Headwaters up in Park Rapids are concerned (and rightfully so) with the route Enbridge has proposed for its “Sandpiper” pipeline, which would transport crude from the Bakken region of North Dakota all the way to Superior. Along the way, it would pass through some of the most pristine, untrammeled, and beautiful areas in Minnesota– no, in the country– including the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Frankly, unless you’re an oil pipeline executive whose only concern is moving product as quickly and cheaply as possible, the route is totally bonkers.
We’ll have much more to say about Sandpiper and its companion project, the Line 3 “replacement” (both of which we’ve mentioned before), in the weeks and months to come; they’re both a part of the current North American crude and tar sands arms race. At present, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (the equivalent of our MPSC) is reviewing Enbridge’s approval request for Sandpiper. And the Friends of the Headwaters, because they are both rational and devoted to Minnesota’s stunning natural resources, are trying to persuade the PUC to reject Enbridge’s route and to protect the magnificent headwaters. The vast majority of informed Minnesotans appear to agree with them. As landowners who have lived through the “Enbridge experience” and as frequent visitors and admirers of Minnesota’s wonderful and fragile waterways, we fully support the work of the Friends.
For that reason, we were particularly thrilled to be invited to speak with them about our own experience. An impressive, curious, and thoughtful crowd of about 75 people showed up to the talk. They were full of energy and commitment, much of that we are sure owing to the example of Friends of the Headwaters President Richard Smith, who is one smart, cool dude (here he is all brilliant and sensible on MSNBC’s “The Ed Show.”) Richard is collaborating with a whole bunch of awesome people, including Deanna Johnson and Barry Babcock, who were kind enough to take us on a fun, informative, gorgeous tour of the headwaters at Itasca State Park on a sweltering day. The company and the scenery were so good that the heat didn’t bother us a bit.
Our talk seemed to be well received; we tried not to go on too long. But the best part was the warm hospitality, the great generosity, and the commitment and enthusiasm of the Friends of the Headwaters. As observers of Enbridge expansion projects in the region, we’ve long admired the work the Friends are doing. Getting to know them in person only deepened that admiration, adding to it real fondness. We can’t thank them enough– for the invitation and for their efforts to protect and preserve Minnesota’s natural resources.
Best of all, their cause appears to be gaining steam, so much so that the PUC actually seems to be listening (at least a little) and Enbridge is doing what it does: lots of misleading p.r.