Great Lakes Pipeline Dwarfs Keystone XL

As much of the world celebrates the veto of the notorious Keystone XL pipeline, an even larger project is already underway in the Great Lakes region.

Enbridge is North America’s leader in crude oil transportation with nearly 16,000 miles of pipeline in U.S and Canada. Tar sands are a mixture of crude oil, sand, clay, and bitumen. This material is slated to be transported in their latest energy project, an expansion on an existing pipeline running from Lake Superior through the center of Wisconsin.

Current route of the Enbridge pipeline through Wisconsin.
Current route of the Enbridge pipeline through Wisconsin.

Roughly 200 speakers, environmentalists, and activists from around the Midwest met in Madison on February 21st for an afternoon of presentations and workshops to connect and discuss ways to stop this expansion.

Jane Kleeb, director of Bold Nebraska and one of the key organizers in halting Keystone XL, spoke of her experiences back in Nebraska.

She laid out a strategy focused on three things: 1) The need for small groups to connect with the national organizations, 2) these groups must be in constant action and utilize creative design, and 3) the importance of strengthening unlikely alliances.

The result: 3 people operating on a $250,000 budget sparked a movement that staved off a multi-billion dollar international energy project.

A success of that magnitude is cause for celebration, but environmentalism comes with a ceaseless need for diligence. Keystone XL was a turning point in the pursuit for environmental justice, but Enbridge Line 61 is the next step.

Carl Whiting, a representative from the Wisconsin Chapter of the Sierra Club and Ph.D. in Education, spoke of the explicit dangers and logistics of the pipeline as well as ways to interact with local governments.

“Currently, the pipeline pumps around 400,000 barrels per day. If the proposed expansion goes through, it will begin to pump as much as 1.2 million barrels per day,” said Whiting.

Keystone XL at its max capacity would have been pumping 800,000 per day, or 50% less than what will be bisecting one of the most rich sources of freshwater the world has to offer.

Along the pipeline, 12 stations are maintained which act to “pressurize” the sludgy, peanut-butter like substance so that it can continue to travel. Enbridge aims to increase the capacity of these pumping stations rather than increase the size of the pipeline.

Once the tar sands have made it through the pipeline, the excess run-off needs to be dealt with. A corrosive mixture of chemicals and water is pumped through the pipeline in reverse and is concentrated in waste ponds. These incredibly toxic “sacrifice zones” kill birds by the hundreds and the reclamation efforts are less than stellar.

Pictured is a site of the chemical and water slurry that has made it's way back up the pipeline to a "sacrifice zone"
Pictured is a site of the chemical and water slurry that has made it’s way back up the pipeline to a “sacrifice zone”

After explaining the pipeline logistics, Whiting turned the group’s attention to a spill that occurred in Kalamazoo, Michigan. An Enbridge pipeline operating at around 200,000 barrels per day, 1/6th of the proposed capacity in Line 61, leaked for 17 hours and has cost $1.2 billion dollars in damages. This was after being accused of overlooking warning signs of a potential spill. The reclamation efforts continue, but tar sands are a difficult clean-up because it is denser than water, making it harder for the equipment to reach.

Clean-up site at the Enbridge Spill in Kalamazoo
Clean-up site at the Enbridge Spill in Kalamazoo

The $1.2bn in damages, irreparable ecologic harm, and blatant disregard for human and environmental safety on display in that 17 hour leak would have happened in a mere 25 minutes at the new capacity.

“Speak up for the Earth, even when you’re scared. It will help others be brave,” added Whiting, noting that this was an issue everyone has a stake in. This pipeline crosses world-class trout streams and some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet; so sportsmen and environmentalists alike should be aware of the dangers of this infrastructure.

Had this been an isolated instance, Enbridge might have more footing. A compilation on the Forest Ethics website showed this was not the case:

“Between 1999 and 2008, Enbridge has had over 610 spills that released approximately 21 million litres (132,000 barrels) of hydrocarbon, the organic compound in oil, gas or bitumen”

Despite this track record, an insatiable and profitable energy demand continue to allow destructive, industrial processes to take root in a region that is home to the world’s largest source of freshwater. If companies like Enbridge were obligated to pay for the total cost of their products, there would be no pipeline. Thankfully, residents are taking matters into their own hands and looking for ways to stop this project on a local level, one county at a time.

-Harley Fredriksen

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