By David Holtz
With zero fanfare and buried amid the crush of other COVID-19 developments, the federal agency charged with keeping oil pipelines like Enbridge's Line 5 safer issued a notice to Enbridge and other oil transport firms that it will be suspending most regulatory requirements and enforcement actions.
Without naming names, the Pipeline Hazardous Materials and Safety Administration (PHMSA) said that in response to complaints from oil and gas pipeline operators it was suspending enforcement actions and drug testing and encouraging maximum regulatory flexibility for oil and gas pipeline operators during the national coronavirus pandemic emergency.
So what does this mean?
- Like everyone else, this pandemic is impacting the people who are responsible for inspecting oil pipelines, repairing leaks, maintaining and operating equipment and workers whose jobs it is to ensure pipelines are operated safely. We don't know the extent of the impact the pandemic is having on Line 5 and other pipeline operations and safety, but PHMSA said its enforcement suspension was triggered by complaints from pipeline operators like Enbridge who told the agency they were finding it "extremely difficult" to meet federal pipeline safety requirements because of the pandemic.
- For anyone concerned about the 67-year-old Line 5 this is troubling news with potential ramifications for the Great Lakes and a Michigan economy already flat-lined by the pandemic. Oil pipeline inspections and safety were already weak before this notice went out on March 20. Now it seems we are all at the sole mercy of Enbridge's ability and desire to inspect, monitor and operate Line 5 and other pipelines.
- We've known for some time about Enbridge's awful track record for pipeline spills, ruptures, leaks and lack of credibility for telling us the truth about Line 5 unless forced by government and the public. PHMSA's enforcement suspension means the public is even more vulnerable when it comes to independently assessing Enbridge's operational safety.
- The response from PHMSA to the impact the public health crisis is having on pipeline operators is further evidence that they are what is described as a "captured" federal agency. PHMSA clearly prioritizes the interests of the oil and gas industry over the public interest. Perhaps suspending enforcement would make more sense if at the same time you took actions to reduce the threat of a pipeline rupture instead of just potentially increasing the chances of one. For example, reducing the frequency and flow of oil through pipelines and shutting down the riskiest oil pipelines like Line 5 who are way beyond their sell-by date should have been one option. With oil use in sharp decline and demand not likely to return to normal levels any time soon, this step should have been considered by any agency that prioritized public safety.
- The last thing Michigan's governor and the public need right now is another public health catastrophe. A major oil pipeline spill in the Great Lakes would require a response from already severely strained federal, state and local governments. PHMSA's pipeline safety enforcement suspension highlights the burden and risk Michigan shoulders by allowing Enbridge's Line 5 to continue operating. Draft recommendations from the Upper Peninsula Energy Task Force make it clear that there are other, better options than Line 5 for providing propane to heat U.P. homes and Canada gets most of the Line 5 oil. Once we are past this current, unprecedented public health crisis, Gov. Whitmer, the Legislature and other state officials must turn their attention to an orderly decommissioning of Line 5.
David Holtz coordinates communications for the Oil & Water Don’t Mix campaign to decommission Line 5 and is a volunteer with Sierra Club.