Oil & Water: Pipelines Face Growing National Scrutiny

Line 61’s route across the St. Croix River’s headwaters is a focus of calls for new safety measures.




4 minute read

Line 61 pipeline fact sheet
Download St. Croix 360’s new Line 61 fact sheet (PDF)

The expansion of Line 61 across the St. Croix headwaters did not get much attention when it was proposed last year. A couple legal notices were posted in local papers, and very few people knew the pipeline would soon carry 50 million gallons a day under the northern Wisconsin rivers.

St. Croix 360 broke the story of Line 61’s route last October, by which time the work to triple the amount of oil flowing through the pipe was well underway. Very few people had heard anything about it.

But now, as the last pump stations are built, as Enbridge prepares to boost the capacity by the end of the year, the media is taking notice.

The latest outlet to cover Line 61, and the larger issues of pipelines and river crossings, is VICE News. The global news company “provides an unvarnished look at some of the most important events of our time, highlights under-reported stories from around the globe, and gets to the heart of the matter with reporters who call it like they see it.”

VICE has recently focused on pipeline issues with an article about Line 61, a video report from the site of the recent pipeline spill into the Yellowstone River, and a commentary about the government’s failure to ensure pipelines are as safe as possible.

On the scene of a spill

“We never recover all of the oil,” says Paul Peronard with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in the video below. “Somebody that tells you that is telling stories. Good conditions, you get half of the oil that hits the water.”

With 50,000 gallons flowing through Line 61 every hour, half the oil spilled could be a lot of oil.

Watch the full 16-minute video below, and note the challenges of cleaning up on river ice. (The ice just went out on the Namekagon last week.) 

As the director of the National Pipeline Safety Trust, an independent nonprofit, points out, the safety of the 2.5 million miles of pipelines in the United States is largely left up to the pipeline companies. The federal government has about 120 inspectors for all those miles, and little authority to require safe procedures.

Wisconsin worries

Enbridge pipeline construction in Canada
Enbridge pipeline construction in Canada (Photo via jasonwoodhead23/Flickr)

In its article on Line 61, VICE notes the pipeline would carry more oil than the controversial Keystone XL proposal, but has received almost no attention.

Pointing out that Line 61 passes through the upper St. Croix River watershed, Elizabeth Ward of the Sierra Club says there is a real risk of a spill. “As we learned with the Kalamazoo spill, we don’t know how to clean up tar sands,” she said. “It’s been four and a half years, and there’s still tar sands in the [Kalamazoo] river. … The EPA is continually ordering the dredging of the river, but they still can’t get it out. If that happened in any of our important waterways, it would devastate Wisconsin.”

In the face of slow movement from federal regulators, VICE also reports that local governments are prevented from doing anything to protect themselves. The 2011 pipeline law prohibits counties from denying permits to pipelines.

“We’ve heard a number of concerns from residents, but there’s very little our committee can do,” said Patrick Miles, Dane County Board supervisor and chair of the zoning committee. “Applying any conditions to the permit that address preventing spills is outside our purview. The only thing in our authority is mitigating risk after a spill. If Enbridge were to go bankrupt and not have the means to pay for a cleanup of a spill, we’re trying to make sure there’s some financial means to fix that.”

Carrying Canada’s crude

At Climate Central, reporter Bobby Magill writes that Line 61 is part of a detour around Keystone XL, which has been held up by opposition about its route and its impact on the climate.

One way or another, Alberta is bursting at the seams with oil, and it needs a way to get it out.

“Today, the roughly 2 million barrels of tar sands oil produced each day in Alberta is sent to refineries in the U.S. and Canada via rail or small pipelines, none of which are adequate to carry the 3.8 million barrels of oil per day expected to be produced in the oil sands by 2022,” the story reports.

When you look at Climate Central’s map of Enbridge’s pipelines that transport oil from Canada’s oil sands to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico, it’s clear that Line 61 is a crucial link to those exports.

Map of Canada's pipeline network
Map by Climate Central. Used with permission.

Are we safer?

In a VICE commentary titled “What Is the US Government Doing to Prevent the Next Oil Pipeline Disaster?, Jeffrey Insko reports that the answer is “almost nothing.” A resident of Marshall, Michigan, where an Enbridge pipeline spilled a million gallons into the Kalamazoo River in 2010, Insko writes that federal regulators have not acted to prevent a repeat of the disaster in his backyard five years ago.

Even though Congress passed a new pipeline safety law one year after the Kalamazoo River spill, no significant improvements have been made to safety requirements.

“We need to demand more from our regulators and legislators,” Insko writes. “The evidence of the past four years suggests that both lack the will to impose stricter standards of safety and regulations that are easier to enforce before a pipeline fails instead of after.”

Insko says he traveled to Washington, D.C. recently with the National Pipeline Safety Trust, and learned little. The regulatory agencies couldn’t tell him what new rules they might be working on or when they might be announced, and members of Congress plan to also address the issue but can’t say how.

Calling out a serious lack of transparency, Insko says pipelines are currently regulated by a friendly relationship between the companies and the government. And that’s why pipelines keep spilling.


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Oil & Water: Pipelines Face Growing National Scrutiny