Oil Spills Could Impact Over 700 Miles in the Great Lakes

Today, the University of Michigan released a startling report showing how far a potential oil spill in the Straits of Mackinac, where Lakes Michigan and Huron meet, could spread. The report was commissioned by the National Wildlife Federation because of our ongoing concern about two 63-year-old pipelines under the Straits that are operated by the company responsible for the largest inland oil disaster in U.S. history.

The results of the University of Michigan study are stark. If the pipelines—which carry more than 23 million gallons of oil a day—ruptured or leaked, oil could drift as far west as Manistique and the Leelanau Peninsula in Lake Michigan, through the straits, and down Lake Huron past the thumb and close to Port Huron and the Canadian coastline through the Bruce Peninsula and beyond. This potential spill zone is greater than 17,000 square miles.

Disaster Waiting to Happen

Before the University of Michigan Water Center released its groundbreaking study, most of what we knew about the potential impacts of an oil spill in the Straits of Mackinac was anecdotal or not specific to Line 5. It’s obvious that no good will come from Enbridge Energy’s Line 5 laying on the bottom of the Straits – twin pipelines built to last 50 years which are corroding now that they are in year 63. But, I was blown away by just how far-ranging a spill could be.

The study modeled 840 scenarios in the Straits of Mackinac — an area with extremely strong and highly variable currents that can move more than 10 times the volume of water going over Niagara Falls. Check out how the oil moves in these sample scenarios.

University of Michigan model shows potential reach of oil spill in the Straits of Mackinac under different scenarios. The map shows the probability (percent of cases) in which oil is present at any time after initial release. The potential impact zone covers an area larger than the surface area of Lake Erie. Graphic / University of Michigan
Univ. of Michigan model shows potential reach of oil spill in the Straits of Mackinac under different scenarios. Image from University of Michigan

The study used conservative estimates for the volume of oil spilled, even taking Enbridge Energy’s own estimates for a “worst case” oil spill as one point of reference, which is a “best case” by any rational method. The author of the study, Dr. David Schwab, concludes that an area in Lakes Michigan and Huron greater than the total surface area of Lakes Erie and Ontario combined and over 700 miles of Michigan and Ontario coastline are potentially at risk.

A couple of things really stand out to me. First, Dr. Schwab – the foremost authority on currents in the Straits of Mackinac – only analyzed ice-free conditions because there is no reliable way to model spills under ice. That raises the question of whether the pipeline under the Straits should be operating in winter. Second, Enbridge will surely criticize this study because it does not account for any cleanup or spill response. My question is: When you look at these maps, do you see any foreseeable circumstance where a real cleanup can occur? You’d need to know where the oil is heading, be in broad daylight, have no ice cover, and no significant wind or waves. Sound like a scenario you want to bet the Great Lakes future on?

NWF’s answer is no, which is why we’ve launched one lawsuit and have issued notice on a second. Current spill response plans simply aren’t adequate. In fact, this report is just the latest in our ongoing campaign to protect the Great Lakes from dangerous oil pipelines. From our report, Sunken Hazard, which brought Line 5 to public attention, our mission has been clear: the world’s most important freshwater resource deserves the highest level of protection and care.

Risk to Environment, Economy, Way of Life

Protect Great Lakes wildlife like the common loon. Photo by Joyce Kleven

Think of what’s at stake: drinking water, beaches, marinas, Mackinac Island and a good chunk of the region’s recreational tourism economy. An oil spill in the Great Lakes could be devastating to the environment, fish, and wildlife, and could potentially impact endangered and threatened species such as the piping plover and Kirtland’s warbler.

The pipeline operator’s response to these threats has largely been saying “trust us”. That’s a tough sell for a company with a track record of spills, accidents, and major disasters.

A few years ago, after Enbridge Energy refused to share safety and inspection records of the pipelines under the Straits, we sent a dive team down to get a look for ourselves and found that the pipelines didn’t have the proper supports for Line 5—a violation of their easement. The state has also strongly critiqued Enbridge recently for denying access to critical safety information.

Diver examines oil pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac, where Lakes Michigan and Huron meet. Photo / National Wildlife Federation
Diver examines oil pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac, where Lakes Michigan and Huron meet. Photo by NWF

What are we risking the Great Lakes for? Enbridge’s Line 5 delivers oil mostly from the Canadian tar sands to Canadian and export markets. The Straits of Mackinac – the “worst possible place for an oil spill in the Great Lakes,” according to Dr. Schwab – are serving as a shortcut. Michiganders have nearly all the risk and virtually no benefit from this oil, especially since Michigan and the U.S. oil needs can be met using alternative pipelines.

That’s why we hope that Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette is correct when he states that Line 5’s “days are numbered” and that the risky oil pipeline would not have received a permit today. The state is studying the potential risk the underwater pipelines pose, as well as possible alternatives to the pipeline in order to determine “how quickly we can remove the pipeline currently running below the Straits of Mackinac,” according to Schuette. That’s the kind of leadership we need from all state officials, including Michigan Governor Rick Snyder.

Take ActionTell Michigan’s Governor Snyder to shut down Enbridge Line 5!

I’m serving on Snyder’s Michigan Pipeline Safety Advisory Board, and I think our role is exactly what the attorney general lays out – figuring out how to quickly stop oil from flowing under the Straits of Mackinac while ensuring that any alternative does not add more risks to our water, health, wildlife and environment. In the wake of the Flint crisis, it’s hard to imagine a more important responsibility than protecting our drinking. The University of Michigan study adds even more urgency to this task. It shows in unprecedented detail that the Straits of Mackinac are simply incompatible with oil pipelines.