Editor’s note: Greg Seitz, operator of the website St. Croix 360, has been reporting on Enbridge Energy’s oil pipeline system in Wisconsin and Minnesota for the past four years. Here he discusses the possible expansion of two connected parts of the Canadian company’s Lakehead System: Line 3 across Minnesota and Line 61 in Wisconsin and Illinois, which carry Canadian tar sands oil through the headwaters of the Mississippi and the St. Croix Rivers to Midwest and Gulf of Mexico markets.
Of the two, the Line 3 project is much farther along. Enbridge wants to replace the existing Line 3, which has carried oil from Alberta across Minnesota to Superior, Wisconsin since the 1960s. Work began in 2017 on the Canadian and Wisconsin portions of the line. A regulatory decision in Minnesota is expected in a few months. Enbridge is hoping to begin using the new pipe in 2019.
On Line 61, Enbridge recently tripled capacity by adding pumps. Then, in 2016, officials told investors at the corporation’s annual meeting that a “Line 61 twin” project is under consideration.
In this feature for Agate, Greg draws from his St. Croix 360 series, relating key issues and giving regional context to this unfolding environmental story.
Line 3 in Minnesota
Enbridge Energy, headquartered in Calgary, Alberta, describes the Line 3 replacement project as the largest in the company’s history; it’s projected to cost $2.9 billion in U.S. dollars in the United States, and $5.3 billion in Canadian dollars in Canada. Although it would be only two inches larger in diameter, the new pipe could carry twice as much oil, at much higher pressure. The aging pipeline is currently approved to carry 390,000 barrels per day. The “expected initial capacity” of a replacement is 760,000 barrels.
Indian tribes and environmental groups have been fighting the proposal since 2014, when Enbridge first brought it to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. Critics object to Enbridge’s plan to leave the existing, 50-year-old pipe in place, cleaning oil out of the old system after the new pipeline is built.
They also suggest the new pipeline would violate treaty rights of native people by endangering the clean lands and waters on which the Anishinaabeg have rights to hunt, fish, and subsist off the land.
Currently Line 3 goes through the Leech Lake and Fond du Lac reservations; Enbridge wants to re-design much of the route to avoid reservations, but critics say it remains dangerously close to the headwaters of the Mississippi, passing under the upper Mississippi twice as well as the upper reaches of the Kettle River, a state-designated Wild & Scenic River with two popular state parks downstream.
Meanwhile, in Wisconsin
The St. Croix River rises in northern Wisconsin, where springs bubble up in bogs and trickle together to form the clear, cold river. It’s a land full of wildlife and woods and waters, cherished for hunting, fishing, canoeing and kayaking.
Just a few miles downstream of the St. Croix’s source, the Eau Claire River flows in. Another twenty miles south, the Namekagon joins. A short ways up the Namekagon, the Totogatic River enters it.
Under all four of those rivers, and through countless forests, fields, creeks and wetlands in the region, a 42-inch pipeline carries a torrent of heavy crude oil in a diagonal line from northwest to southeast, ending up at refineries near Chicago.
This is Line 61, and it spans Wisconsin from north to south. Enbridge has operated Line 61 since 2009, but in 2014 and 2015 the company added pumps to triple the pipeline’s capacity to 50 million gallons per day—supplying America with its predominant transportation fuel, and multiplying the potential for pollution in sensitive waterways.
The company is also considering a possible “twin” Line 61, another 42-inch pipe along the same route. There is no formal proposal yet, but Enbridge has been surveying the right-of-way and talking to suppliers.
If the planned expansion of Line 3 from Alberta across Minnesota to Superior goes ahead, Enbridge says there could be a bottleneck in Superior unless Line 61 is expanded as well. The approximately $3 billion pipeline could transport about 23 million gallons of oil per day.
Unconventional crude, unconventional challenges
The oil industry considers much of the oil flowing through this system to be “unconventional.” It isn’t pumped out of the ground, like regular crude, but mined, resembling hot asphalt. It must be processed and diluted with lighter oil and other chemicals to allow it to flow through pipelines. The mixture is known as diluted bitumen, or “dilbit.”
For several years, experts have debated the question of whether or not dilbit spills are harder to clean up than regular crude oil. Environmental groups say it sinks in water; the pipeline industry says it doesn’t.
An “uncontrolled experiment” occurred in 2010, when an Enbridge pipeline burst in Michigan, resulting in the largest inland oil spill in American history—nearly a million gallons. More than 25 miles of the Kalamazoo River were contaminated when much of the dilbit sank. The riverbed had to be dredged, and the river was closed to the public for two years.
In early 2016, a peer-reviewed study by an independent committee of scientists and engineers answered the question of whether dilbit is harder to clean up. The report found that dilbit differs in significant ways from other crude oils.
“The key differences are in the exceptionally high density, viscosity, and adhesion properties of the bitumen component of the diluted bitumen,” the report says.
In the event of a spill, the lightweight petroleum products mixed with the bitumen quickly evaporate, leaving the heavy oil behind. Bitumen sticks to almost anything else in the water — leaves, branches, sediment — which can weigh it down and cause it to sink below the surface.
The study was conducted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS), a Congressionally-designated organization that advises the government on scientific issues. It was reviewed by other experts, and included input from industry representatives. The two-year project was funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
River crossings are especially problematic for pipelines. A spill in moving water is many times more difficult to contain and clean up than on dry land, and the power of rivers increases the chance of a rupture.
Two oil pipelines have ruptured in the Yellowstone River in the past decade, together spilling more than 100,000 gallons of oil. Both breaks were blamed on the pipeline being exposed when the current carried away rock and soil that covered the pipe in the river. After that happened, floating debris and rushing water damaged the pipes and they ruptured.
Less than one percent of the oil spill in both incidents was collected.
“Since it is virtually impossible to clean up oil once it’s spilled into our waterways, our focus must be on spill prevention,” Scott Bosse of the nonprofit advocacy group American Rivers wrote after one Yellowstone River spill. He pointed to burying pipelines deeper under rivers as a “common sense” step necessary to avoid the hazards of scour.
Currently, federal law requires that under rivers 100 feet or wider, pipes must be buried four feet beneath the bottom. Under narrower rivers, there is no depth requirement. There is also no requirement that pipes remain buried after they are installed, although if a spill happens and the company failed to consider exposure, it can be fined.
If a pipe is exposed on the riverbed, the company might notice the problem during a visual inspection. Enbridge patrols by air every two weeks and on-the-ground patrols are at least that frequent, especially during floods.
Or the patrols might not see it through the root-beer colored waters, or the muddy waters of a flood.
Steps toward safety
Oil pipelines are relatively unregulated by state and federal agencies, and operators are given a great deal of discretion. An in-depth environmental review was performed in Minnesota for the Line 3 Replacement project—only because native and environmental groups sued the state to conduct one. The project to triple Line 61’s capacity with new pump stations was done with almost no public input, no environmental review, and no analysis performed to ensure the pipeline is buried deep enough under the rivers to survive flooding.
Experts have been urging steps to improve pipeline safety for years.
The National Academies report on the Kalamazoo spill outlined common-sense measures aimed at dilbit pipelines specifically, starting with simply identifying dilbit when it is being transported.
The report also recommended pipeline companies:
- Design plans for cleaning up submerged oil
- Develop new tools and techniques to recover oil from water
- Conduct more research on how dilbit behaves in waterways.
The report also calls on the federal agency in charge of pipelines, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, to review response plans thoroughly.
Another national group, the nonprofit Pipeline Safety Trust, says the following changes would improve pipeline regulation:
- Require environmental analysis of new pipelines. There is no operating permit required for hazardous liquid pipelines, so most new pipelines are never reviewed for environmental, social, and economic impacts.
- Empower regulators by letting them take away permits. Because there’s no permit required for a pipeline, regulators can’t revoke or suspend the license to enforce the rules (unlike driving a car, cutting hair, or building a house).
- Require regular inspections of the 60 percent of pipeline miles not currently covered. Operators must assess all of the risks to their pipelines, inspect them regularly, and repair any observed anomalies in a timely manner—but only for segments of pipelines that could affect a “High Consequence Area.” Designating those areas (commercially navigable waterways; populated areas; or places with endangered species) is up to the pipeline operator, and adds up to only 41 percent of pipeline miles (2015 numbers, the most recent available). Pipeline segments that do not affect High Consequence Areas are not required to have integrity management plans, and there are few legal requirements to inspect and repair those segments.
- Rewrite safety rules to restrict operator discretion. Even rules that appear to be very straightforward are not. Exemptions frequently say something like: “If the operator can’t meet the schedule, the operator has to tell the regulator why not.” Further, requirements for emergency valves include no standard against which the decision whether or not to install the valves can be measured.
Plans for a new Line 3 await a decision by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. In September, 2017, the state Commerce Department advised against granting a certificate of need for the project, saying the project was not needed, would primarily benefit areas outside Minnesota, and would pose “serious environmental and socio-economic risks” with limited benefits. The PUC is asking for more detail on the environmental study, and plans to make a decision in spring, 2018.
Native groups have prepared their own environmental review; the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe and others prepared a Tribal Cumulative Impact Assessment.
If Enbridge’s Line 3 replacement project is approved, and if the company pursues the Line 61 twin, it would expand its Lakehead System to transport millions more gallons of oil, mostly from Alberta’s oil sands, through some of America’s most fragile landscapes.
Here are some sources to stay current on these issues. Meanwhile, you can be sure Greg will be keeping an eye on developments and continue to report on it at St. Croix 360.
- Enbridge Energy’s Proposed Line 3 Pipeline Project (MN Commerce Department)
- Line 61 upgrade project (Enbridge)
- Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration
- Pipeline Safety Trust