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Is Line 5 needed to heat the Upper Peninsula?

map of Line 5
Enbridge Energy
Enbridge's Line 5 runs from Superior, Wisconsin to Sarnia, Ontario.


An environmental group in Traverse City is challenging the claim that Enbridge’s Line 5 is necessary to keep residents of the U.P. warm. 

The twin pipelines that run under the Straits of Mackinac deliver natural gas liquids that can be turned into propane.

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About 50,000 homes in the U.P. are heated with propane. So any serious debate about removing Line 5 will likely invoke threats of people freezing to death in northern Michigan.


Exactly how much of the propane supply in the U.P. arrives on Line 5 has been a shifting number.


In the past, Enbridge claimed it was 85%.


Now they’ve backed that number down to 65%.


Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy says the line’s importance to the U.P. is obvious.


“This being winter there in the U.P., now more than ever you can clearly see how important it is to have this energy moving into that area,” he says.


Line 5 has been a subject of controversy for years now in Michigan.


Environmental groups want the pipelines out of the Straits of Mackinac. They say they’re not worth the risk to the Great Lakes.


A group in Traverse City called For Love of Water, or FLOW, released a reportthat questions Line 5’s importance to propane markets in the UP.


Liz Kirkwood is FLOW’s executive director.


“It has been greatly exaggerated from the publicly available data that we have,” she says.


Kirkwood claims the amount of propane coming into the U.P. on Line 5 is less than half the market demand, maybe closer to a third. She says FLOW is interested in this question because of an independent report expected later this year. It will consider alternatives to Line 5.


Kirkwood wants to make sure the report carefully examines the question of propane coming into the U.P.


“Because if they’re not looking at the propane supply, we’re going to be concerned that the alternative – the status quo – will be the inevitable conclusion,” she says.


Whatever the percentage is, Line 5 clearly has some importance to the U.P. In 2014, a shortage of propane in the U.S. was felt more sharply there when the supply of gas from Line 5 was interrupted for about a week.


Don Steckman, with Ferrellgas, says some propane retailers in the U.P. went as far away as Texas to get fuel.


“And still waited in long lines in Texas, and you’re talking about a lot of time to get the propane and a lot of cost,” he says.


Steckman says his company in the U.P. gets some propane from freight trains now, about 10% of his total. And he says he’d like to bring in more gas that way, but propane is a pretty small business for the railroads.


“They don’t have much interest because it is such a small piece of the pie. It’s hard to even get them to talk about it,” he says.


Steckman says it would be possible for the Upper Peninsula to get all its propane shipped in on rail cars and eliminate the need for Line 5. But he says rail transport is less reliable because it can be delayed by snow and ice. And he says the switch would take years and cost million of dollars.


“The money is an issue because, ultimately, when you have to make that kind of an investment in infrastructure, ultimately the customer and user ends up paying for it,” he says.


The report from FLOW suggests using train cars and trucks to bring in the heating fuel.


Enbridge officials say there is no need for an alternative because Line 5 is in good shape and being operated safely. (But Enbridge has discovered areas of corrosion along the pipelines, as Michigan Radio's Mark Brush reported last year.)


Officials say the company is giving information to the independent consultants who are preparing the report about alternatives.


That’s expected later this year.

*Editor’s Note: Enbridge Energy is a financial supporter of Michigan Radio.

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