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More tar sands oil in Michigan pipeline?

Enbridge Energy is planning to replace an old pipeline that runs through Michigan.

It’s called Line 6B. That’s the same line that broke in Marshall nearly two years ago.  The Environmental Protection Agency says more than one million gallons of tar sands oil spilled into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River. 

Since the spill, Enbridge has been making repairs on that pipeline.   

Joe Martucci is a spokesperson for Enbridge. He says the new pipeline will cut down on the number of repairs they’ll have to make.

"The purpose and need of it is integrity driven and also to increase the capacity of the line at the same time."

After the Marshall spill, Enbridge was ordered to reduce the pressure in Line 6B.  That means there’s a lot less oil flowing through that pipeline now than there was before the spill.

Martucci says the new pipeline will allow Enbridge to double the amount of oil they can transport, up to 500,000 barrels per day.  There is the potential for the pipeline to move as much as 800,000 barrels per day. But Joe Martucci says they would have to add more equipment to do so, and file a new application with the state of Michigan.

He says oil from Alberta’s tar sands region will be the main product in their new pipeline. 

"The refiners and others are telling us they want more access to this oil and you know, it’s our job to try and provide them with a transportation capacity that makes that available."

Some landowners and environmental groups are worried about the idea of more tar sands oil moving through the Great Lakes region.

Beth Wallace is with the National Wildlife Federation. 

"In order for them to transport it in its raw form, which it almost is equivalent to holding a chunk of clay, they have to dilute it with this liquid gas condensate and pump it at very high pressures, which heats the line as well. It’s like sandblasting a line."

Wallace says her group is concerned those factors could lead to another pipeline spill. The official investigation into what caused the Marshall spill is still underway.

The federal government is also funding a study to find out whether tar sands oil is more corrosive to pipelines than traditional crude oil. (The Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration was directed by Congress to study whether diluted bitumen, aka tar sands oil, poses any increased risk of spills in pipelines that carry it. PHMSA has contracted this study out to the National Academy of Sciences, to, in PHMSA's words, "conduct a full and independent study of this topic.")

Wallace: "Once that study is concluded there could be changes that happen to our regulatory system over pipelines, and so for any project to be pushed through before that study is concluded is premature."

We’ve previously reported that state and federal officials say the nature of tar sands oil made the Marshall spill much more difficult to clean up.

Enbridge spokesperson Joe Martucci says the company does not treat tar sands oil any differently than traditional crude.

"There’s no factual data or technical studies that have been done that indicated that this commodity has any different effect on the pipelines than any other crude oil."

The pipeline replacement project will include 225 miles of pipeline in Michigan.  But the Michigan Public Service Commission has only approved part of that project.  They’re still making a decision on the remaining 160 miles.

Beth Wallace with the National Wildlife Federation says there’s evidence Enbridge wants to make the Great Lakes region a hub for transporting tar sands oil.

"There’s a way they can push product all the way east for export, and they’ve actually talked about that in some of their presentations and Power Points to their investors."

To do that, the company would have to reverse the flow of oil in one of its Canadian pipelines.

Enbridge spokesperson Joe Martucci confirms that the company is proposing to reverse the flow of oil in that Canadian pipeline. But he says there is no larger-scale plan in place. 

"Well, I think that’s a notion without substance as far as I know. I know of no plan or proposal that would connect all those dots."


Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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