In 1953, construction was completed on Line 5, a pipeline that runs through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Lower Peninsula It’s owned by Enbridge, a Canadian company. It carries, according to them, “light crude oil, light synthetic crude, and natural gas liquids (NGLs), including propane.”
Tar sands oil starts out as bitumen, a heavy substance resembling asphalt, stuck to grains of sand. There are huge deposits of this dirty sand in Alberta, Canada. The bitumen is separated from the sand by hot steam. if the sand is right at the surface, it can be taken to a steam separation plant. If it is a deeper deposit, steam is pumped into the earth, and bitumen is pumped out while hot. Either way, the separated bitumen is a solid when it cools, heavier than water – unlike oil, which is lighter than water.
Some of the bitumen is sent to a Canadian plant for processing into a synthetic crude oil, or “syncrude.” The long-chain molecules are broken into shorter ones and hydrogen (from natural gas or natural gas liquids) is added to the molecules. This is essentially a specialized kind of refinery, turning bitumen into something that can be handled by a normal refinery that produces gasoline and diesel fuel. The product resembles a light natural crude oil. It’s a liquid at normal temperatures, and can be shipped in a pipeline.
Some of the bitumen is simply mixed with solvents – benzene, natural gas liquids and similar light molecules – until it dissolves. It’s called diluted bitumen, or “dilbit” for short. This mixture can also be shipped in a pipeline. This is what spilled out of Enbridge’s Line 6B near Marshall, Michigan in 2010. About a million gallons of diluted bitumen spilled into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River.
Fumes from evaporating solvents sickened people living in the vicinity of the spill. Many needed to be evacuated. Wildlife in and around the water just died. In the water, bitumen separated from solvents and sunk to the bottom. There are today large deposits of bitumen scattered along miles of the river bed, even though the river has been declared to be “cleaned up” by Enbridge.
Enbridge may claim that no diluted bitumen is shipped through Line 5. That may even be true, since diluted bitumen requires higher pressures and higher temperatures than either natural or synthetic crude oil. There are two reasons not to be reassured by their statement. First, synthetic crude is just as much a product of tar sands as diluted bitumen. Second, even if it is currently their practice to ship diluted bitumen by other means, nothing stops them from changing their policy tomorrow, and nothing requires them to notify us if they do.
Whether it’s dilbit or syncrude, tar sands oil requires much more energy for extracting and processing before it goes to a fuel-producing refinery. All this processing requires energy, and the energy comes from burning fossil fuels. Fuel made from tar sands creates just as much carbon dioxide emissions as fuel from natural crude. Processing the tar sands creates an additional huge amount of these emissions plus other types of pollution and other types of environmental degradation. The bottom line is that tar sands oil is far worse than natural crude oil.
On land, Enbridge Line 5 is a 30″ pipe plus a number of pumping stations. Just west of the Mackinac Bridge, it is split into two 20″ diameter pipes. these two pipes, separated by about 1000 feet, run underground until the water is about 65 feet deep. Then they run exposed to the water along the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac. Line 5 has a capacity of carrying about 22.7 million gallons a day of light crude oil, light synthetic crude, and natural gas liquids (NGLs), including propane, or whatever else the company sees fit to put in the line.
In 2010, it took them 17 hours to shut off the flow from their ruptured Line 6B. The company says they are much more alert these days, and have better monitoring on Line 5. Of course, that’s similar to what they said after the 1999 spill of 222,000 gallons from Line 5 near Crystal Falls in the Upper Peninsula, too. It’s the kind of thing that company public relations departments and crisis management consultants recommend that companies say. We do not need to take them at their word.
There are a lot of scenarios about how disastrous a rupture of Line 5 dumping into the Straits of Mackinac would be. The gist of it is that it would be a disaster spread rapidly into both Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, and impossible to clean up. It’s a really extreme risk for Michigan to take for the benefit of a Canadian pipeline company specifically and for perpetuating the environmentally destructive tar sands energy generally.
Enbridge Line 5 is a disaster if it breaks, and a disaster if it works as intended. The way to prevent both disasters is to shut it down. We’ll need to do much more, of course, to use clean energy efficiently and create a fair, sustainable society. Shutting down Enbridge’s Line 5 is an excellent and essential step.
For some scenarios of disaster and ways to resist, just Google “Enbridge Line 5.” You’ll see Oil and Water Don’t Mix, For Love of Water, MI-CATS and others. What the Green Party of Michigan adds to the resistance is the chance for candidates to make shutting down Line 5 a part of their election campaigns. We’ve approved it as an official position for GPMI. Voters will have a chance to vote for this and other issues that Democrats and Republicans will not touch by voting for GPMI candidates.
It’s taken long enough for us – the people of Michigan, not just the Green Party – to notice this sort of thing as an issue. In 1953, when the line was built, there was no concern over global warming or peak oil. There was very little concern about our political process being controlled by big corporations. It wasn’t until 1961 that Dwight D. Eisenhower exited his term as president with his speech warning us about the military-industrial complex. Earth Day didn’t come along until 1970.
There’s lots of discontent now that was not evident 50 or 30 or even 10 years ago. We’re in a process of sorting out who’s working to dissipate dissent and perpetuate oppression (hint – corporate money funneled to the two-party system) and who’s working against it. At some point, we’ll all notice that hundreds of little local movements and single-issue groups are coalescing into a mass movement.
Which side will you be on?