Senate Approves Great Lakes Pipeline Safety Bill

Published April 21, 2016

On March 3, in a rare demonstration of bipartisanship on issues related to energy and the environment, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a comprehensive pipeline safety bill for the Great Lakes region.

Sponsored by Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), the legislation received the support of the Republican-controlled Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Peters’ bill, known as the SAFE PIPES Act, would reauthorize the Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) legislation through 2019.

The bill will now be considered by the U.S. House of Representatives, which could revise the legislation.

“An oil spill in the Great Lakes would be catastrophic—not only for Michigan’s economy and environment but for the 40 million people who rely on the lakes as their source for clean drinking water,” Peters said in a press release. “I’m pleased the Senate passed this critical legislation with unanimous bipartisan support, and I look forward to working with my colleagues in the House to get this bill signed into law so that we can advance safety standards, improve ice cover response plans, and better protect against the devastating impacts of an oil spill would have on our waterways and our way of life.”

The Enbridge Spill and Pipeline Safety

The bill has largely been offered in response to a 2010 oil spill in the Kalamazoo River in southern Michigan—the worst inland oil spill in U.S. history. The spill occurred when a pipeline operated by Canadian energy giant Enbridge Inc. ruptured, spewing one million gallons of heavy Alberta tar sands oil into a creek feeding into the Kalamazoo River.

While the Kalamazoo spill focused public attention on pipeline safety, most of the bill’s provisions deal with issues unique to Line 5 in the Mackinac Straits, a 645-mile pipeline running from Superior, Wisconsin to Sarnia, Ontario, also operated by Enbridge. The SAFE PIPES Act would improve safety related to Line 5 in the Mackinac Straits by improving oil spill response plans to address potential problems with ice cover and by requiring critical reviews of pipelines. The legislation also increases the authorized funding levels for PHMSA by 2 percent annually over four years, which would help to ensure sufficient resources are available for pipeline oversight.

Cleaning up an oil spill under ice cover is a major concern in the Great Lakes region. Peters says the U.S. Coast Guard has acknowledged it lacks the technology and capacity for cleaning up after a worst-case oil spill under solid ice.

Ryan Duffy, media relations supervisor for Enbridge, told his company has “the training, the people and resources to respond quickly to a winter spill in the Straits of Mackinac: Equipment like ice augers and drills, specialized remotely operated vehicles, arctic boom and fire boom, as well as arctic-specific skimming equipment positioned near the Straits to enable access, containment and removal of oil.” 

The Importance of Line 5 to Northern Michigan

Line 5 is essential to the economic well-being of the region, providing approximately 85 percent of homes in northern Michigan with access to propane. Additionally, 30 percent of the light crude oil passing through the line is used to power manufacturing and fuel cars.

“Pipeline safety is a key to a healthy economy,” said Isaac Orr, research fellow at The Heartland Institute, which publishes of Environment & Climate News. “Not only are pipelines more efficient than hauling crude oil by rail, they are actually much safer.

“It’s refreshing to see lawmakers taking a common-sense approach to legislation that acknowledges the importance of oil in our daily lives and seeks to develop that resource in the most environmentally responsible way,” said Orr.

Dan Simmons, vice president for policy at the Institute for Energy Research, believes Peters’ bill needs improvement.

“There are some serious issues with the SAFE PIPES Act as it pertains to providing information to the government, specifically regarding the availability of unredacted oil spill response plans,” Simmons said. “We hope these concerns are addressed in conference, if it gets that far.”

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.