Mott-funded research will explore alternatives to Great Lakes oil pipeline

A diver swims above the Embridge Pipeline 5 in the Straits of Mackinac.
Line 5 transports up to 23 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids per day across the Straits of Mackinac. Photo: Courtesy of National Wildlife Federation

Government officials and the public are becoming increasingly concerned about possible spills from a 65-year-old oil pipeline that runs along the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac. The Mackinac Straits Oil Pipeline, known as Line 5, carries up to 23 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids across the Straits daily. The age of the pipeline — along with questions about its stability on the lake bottom, gaps in its protective coating and recent dents from a ship’s anchor — have prompted calls to shut it down. Enbridge Inc., which owns the pipeline, says it is safe. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette have called for it to be decommissioned.

It’s against this backdrop that the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation provided $135,000 in grant funding to the National Wildlife Federation, which will hire independent experts to analyze the risks and costs associated with alternatives to Line 5. In this Q&A, Mott Environment Program Officer Tim Eder discusses the project.

Mott: Why did Mott provide funding for this research?

Tim Eder - Environment program officer
Tim Eder. Photo: Cristina Wright

Tim Eder: Gov. Snyder and other state officials who will decide the fate of Line 5 need independent, credible research to make an informed decision about the pipeline’s future and alternatives that meet the energy needs of Michigan and neighboring states. This analysis will fill important gaps in information so that the state won’t have to rely solely on Enbridge-funded studies. The fact that a ship anchor recently struck and dented the pipeline in three places demonstrated that Line 5 is vulnerable, so this work is a race against time.

Mott: What are the goals of the project?

Eder: The research will provide a thorough, objective analysis of the costs and risks associated with alternatives to Line 5. It also will provide the information needed to ensure that any alternative — such as burying Line 5 in a tunnel beneath the bottom of the Straits, rerouting the oil by increasing the flow in other Enbridge pipelines, or transporting it via trains — doesn’t cause worse problems elsewhere in the region.

Mott: Who will do the research?

Eder: World-renowned, independent pipeline experts hired by the National Wildlife Federation, a longtime Mott grantee. NWF has been at the forefront of discussions about Line 5, and the director of its Great Lakes Regional Office, Mike Shriberg, serves on Gov. Snyder’s Pipeline Safety Advisory Board.

Mott: Hasn’t this issue been studied before?

Eder: Yes, but an earlier study was funded by Enbridge, the pipeline owner, and there were information gaps in that report. Any decisions about Line 5 alternatives should be informed by independent research that explores all aspects of the issue.

Mott: When will the research be completed?

Eder: The researchers plan to complete the project by the end of July, so that their analysis can inform Gov. Snyder’s decision about the future of the pipeline. The governor is scheduled to decide the fate of Line 5 on Aug. 15. That’s not the only reason for completing this research quickly. Previous research concluded that an oil spill in the Straits of Mackinac would be catastrophic and difficult to clean up, and the recent anchor strike on Line 5 was a wakeup call. We dodged a bullet this time, but the clock is ticking.