Northern Minnesota and Wisconsin are sandwiched between oil-producing areas in Alberta and North Dakota and refineries in the Chicago area and beyond. So while our region doesn’t produce oil, there is a lot of interest in moving oil through it — from where it’s extracted to where it’s turned into fuel and other products.
Enbridge’s Lakehead System is a network of pipelines designed to transport millions of gallons of oil each day through the region. It includes existing pipelines like Line 61 across the St. Croix River’s headwaters in northern Wisconsin, a proposed new line in Minnesota which would carry up to 30 million gallons more across a wild St. Croix tributary, and the possibility of another in the same Wisconsin corridor as Line 61.
This makes a lot of people nervous, especially for the area’s abundant lakes, rivers, streams, and wetlands. Oil pipeline spills can be catastrophic, with potentially massive releases from the high-pressure lines, possibly in remote and hard-to-reach areas.
So I wanted to know if we’re doing everything we can to ensure that doesn’t happen.
I asked one of the smartest pipeline people I know, Rebecca Craven of the Pipeline Safety Trust, to break it down. Rebecca’s organization was founded after a pipeline explosion in Bellingham, WA in 1999 killed three young boys.
She told me despite catastrophes like Bellingham and Kalamazoo, pipelines today could still “be a whole lot safer.” Here are some of the key ways we could reduce the risk:
1. Require environmental analysis of new pipelines.
There is no operating permit required for hazardous liquid pipelines, so permits only come into play when a pipeline must cross federal lands or a border crossing, or trigger other Army Corps of Engineers permits. That means most new pipelines are never reviewed for environmental, social, and economic impacts.
2. 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). This removes a key incentive for pipeline operators to behave responsibly, and means regulators have little opportunity to hold them accountable.
3. 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.”
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.
High consequence areas are commercially navigable waterways; populated areas; or Unusually Sensitive Areas. Operators are allowed to decide what are high consequence areas along their pipeline routes, and the legal definitions of “commercially navigable” and “Unusually Sensitive Areas” are severely limited. It all adds up to only 41 percent of pipeline miles being covered by these regulations (2015 numbers, the most recent available).
In the upper St. Croix River watershed, where Line 61 crosses under the St. Croix, Namekagon, and other wild rivers, there are also many important wetlands and bogs. These wetlands are very important for waterfowl and other creatures, as well as rare plants. But they are not drinking water supplies, and no other definition of an Unusually Sensitive Area fits, so they don’t have to be classified as High Consequence Areas, and no integrity management plan is required.
4. 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.”
For example, requirements for when and where emergency valves must be installed to stop the flow of oil if there’s a rupture to protect a high consequence area say: “If an operator determines that an emergency flow restricting device (EFRD) is needed on a pipeline segment to protect a high consequence area in the event of a hazardous liquid pipeline release, an operator must install the EFRD.” But there is no standard against which the operator’s decision whether or not to install the valves can be measured, leaving open a major loophole.