Business as usual for Enbridge

TRAVERSE CITY — There are, at minimum, three major red flags in Gov. Snyder’s announcement of a deal with Enbridge over its 64-year-old Line 5 oil and gas pipe running beneath the Straits of Mackinac.

The first is that when government doesn’t want to do something about a problem (in this case, order a full and permanent shut-down of Line 5), it studies it. Naturally, Snyder’s deal includes a provision to “study” the living heck out of replacing the pipe with a tunnel.

In politics, this is called “kicking the can down the road.” The agreement says various elements of the study will be done next summer, just months before Snyder leaves office for good. It also is written with the slipperiest of verbiage, saying the state and Enbridge agree to thereafter “initiate” discussions regarding a “potential” further agreement with a “goal” of executing the agreement by next August. Does that sound like government in action to you? The truth is Snyder knows any further decision about the pipeline — given the flaccid language — can easily be left to the next governor, which is good for him but potentially disastrous for the Great Lakes in that it allows more time for a disaster to occur.

The beauty of can-kicking, though, is it allows the kicker to seem as if he’s being tough and proactive without actually doing much, as you can hear in this Snyder statement: “Business as usual by Enbridge is not acceptable, and we are going to ensure the highest level of environmental safety standards are implemented to protect one of Michigan’s most valuable natural resources.”

Sounds good,right? Except “the highest level of environmental safety standards” would be shutting it down. So Enbridge is, in fact, going to go about business as usual. The state is, to its credit, requiring Enbridge to replace a damaged section of the line. But aside from that and the irritation of a few other mandated safety precautions, 23 million gallons of oil and liquid natural gas will still be coursing through Line 5 each and every day until such time as the study is done and GOP lawmakers — who have a virtual forever-and-ever lock on state government thanks to gerrymandering – suddenly discover their inner environmentalist.

Odds of that happening? Zilch. There’s never going to be a tunnel, nor an order to shut down the pipeline for good. You know it. I know it. And Enbridge most assuredly knows it. It’ll be business as usual until government forces their hand.

And what would cause a pro-business legislature headed by a business-first governor who got elected because he promised to run government like a business (which worked out so wonderfully well for Flint) to suddenly force a business, albeit a Canadian one, to do something it doesn’t want to do?

A massive oil spill, of course, which is red flag No. 2 for me.

A risk analysis released last week says the chances of Line 5 rupture are low through 2053, and I have no reason to doubt it. Except for this: I’m a homeowner. And as a homeowner, I know damned well that pipes leak and pipes break, usually when you’re away on vacation. And that’s my problem with any pipeline, much less this pipeline, running beneath the Great Lakes. Pipes are made by man, and if man makes it, it can break. Nature is especially good at that. The odds of it happening to Line 5 may be low, but if it happens the damage to Great Lakes could be enormous. (A University of Michigan study said 700 miles of shoreline could be fouled in a worst-case scenario.)

Which brings me to red flag No. 3 — trust. If there’s ever a company that hasn’t earned it, it’s Enbridge, which paid a $61 million fine as part of a $177 million settlement for a ginormous oil spill into the Kalamazoo River in 2010, which took years and a billion dollars to clean up.

Just last month, we learned Enbridge also knew about but didn’t tell the state about damage to the protective coating on Line 5 for three years, which prompted the head of the state’s pipeline board to say, “Enbridge owes the people of Michigan … an apology. This issue is too important to the people of Michigan to not tell the truth in a timely manner, and right now any trust we had in Enbridge has been seriously eroded.”

I repeat: That was just a month ago.

Why would we, as a state, entrust the safety of the Great Lakes to a company like Enbridge just so it can make money?

That makes no sense to me.

Maybe I need to commission a study to help me figure it all out.

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Andrew Heller, an award-winning newspaper columnist, appears weekly in the Daily Press. He graduated from Escanaba Area High School in 1979. Follow him at andrewheller.com and on Facebook and Twitter. Write to him via email at andrewhellercolumn@gmail.com.

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