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Oil and gas industry groups try to block implementation of rule to better protect the Great Lakes

Last summer an oil sheen could be seen along the Kalamazoo River. Now crews are working to clean up the oil that sunk to the bottom.
State of Michigan
Long after an Enbridge oil pipeline broke, an oil sheen could be seen along the Kalamazoo River. Crews then worked to clean up the oil that sank to the bottom.

A new rule went into effect last month, requiring oil and gas companies to better monitor their pipelines if they are in sensitive coastal areas such as the Great Lakes.

Two industry groups, the American Petroleum Institute and GPA Midstream have petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals to review the rule and, until that’s done, stop the rule from being enforced.

Congress passed laws in 2016 and 2020 requiring the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to amend its rules to help prevent catastrophic oil spills that damage shorelines and beaches, and lawmakers specifically named the Great Lakes as an area to be protected.

The “Pipeline Safety: Unusually Sensitive Areas for the Great Lakes, Coastal Beaches, and Certain Coastal Waters” interim final rule went into effect in late February.

“Unusually Sensitive Areas fall under stricter regulations as to how an operator has to maintain the integrity of the pipe, which would lower the possibility of a failure,” explained Bill Caram, executive director of the watchdog group Pipeline Safety Trust.

Caram said the filing by the industry groups came as a surprise for many because it was clear that the Great Lakes should have been better protected all along.

“I certainly didn't expect it. This [the previous rule] was an obvious shortfall of the definition. Senator [Gary] Peters and other lawmakers mandated the federal agency that that this loophole be fixed. PHMSA, the regulator, did that in a relatively straightforward manner, and so this definitely took us by surprise.”

The rule specifically cited events involving Enbridge pipelines in its introduction of the rule.

It stated the rule “will provide enhanced protections for hazardous liquid pipeline accidents similar to the 2010 Marshall, MI and the 2015 Refugio Beach, CA oil spills and ensure that events like the anchor strike that damaged Enbridge’s Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac are promptly identified and remediated before they result in environmental damage."

The two industry groups requesting a stay and review of the rule argued that they had not been given adequate opportunity to comment. The petition to the court said the agency issued the rule without first publishing the proposal, providing the public a chance to comment and the agency a chance to amend the Unusually Sensitive Areas definition.

This could delay implementation of the rule for months or longer, because if the petition is denied, then the two industry groups can file suit.

“We certainly hope this is just a matter of months and the agency can sort it out. We certainly hope that the agency denies this request, and the rule stays in place,” said Caram.

Attempts to reach GPA Midstream were unsuccessful. In an email, the American Petroleum Institute responded, “Unfortunately, our subject matter expert on this is out of the office today,” and no one could offer comment for this story.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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