Study: Partial Line 5 shutdown has not impacted gas prices, despite Enbridge warnings

Enbridge says study does not reflect full economic risk of shutdown

By: - August 10, 2020 4:48 pm

Anti-Line 5 sticker by the Straits of Mackinac | Laina G. Stebbins

New research from a former Dow chemical engineer has found that, despite Canadian oil company Enbridge’s predictions otherwise, the continued partial shutdown of its Line 5 pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac has so far not affected gas prices or supply in Michigan or Canada.

“For a period of [52] days … there has been no deviation for the price of gasoline in Michigan versus the price of gasoline throughout the U.S.,” the study reads. “…Even the forecast of a small price increase … is proving not to be true.”

Enbridge has long warned that there would be dire economic consequences to shutting down Line 5 for any duration.

Both legs of the dual underwater pipeline were shut down for roughly eight days total in June, six of which were court-ordered after Attorney General Dana Nessel was granted a temporary restraining order on Line 5.

That action was taken as part of Nessel v Enbridge Energy LP, et al., Nessel’s ongoing lawsuit against Enbridge in the Ingham County Circuit Court that seeks a permanent decommissioning of Line 5.

Since then, only the west segment of the pipeline has been in operation during the last 52 days as federal regulators at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) investigate significant damage to a support anchor on Line 5’s east leg.

Judge opens part of Line 5, orders investigation

“Shutting down Line 5, even temporarily, would have immediate and severe consequences on the economies of Michigan, Ohio, Ontario, and elsewhere,” an Enbridge infographic reads. The company has long repeated the sentiment as a primary reason for keeping the controversial oil pipeline in operation.

But former chemical engineer Gary Street, who is based in Northern Michigan and has worked pro bono for a number of environmental groups since retiring from Dow, says research he published Sunday shows that Enbridge’s warnings ring hollow.

“You’d think that if Line 5 was as important as they imply, that sure enough, the [price of] gasoline would be just skyrocketing. It hasn’t happened,” Street told the Advance Monday.

According to Street’s report, consumer gas prices in Michigan have closely tracked with the national average since both segments were shut down in mid-June.

That first temporary shutdown in June offered “a real-world experiment” to test Enbridge’s claims of economic harm due to a Line 5 shutdown, Street said.

He said that even with both segments operational, that oil only supplies about 3% of Michigan’s gasoline supply. With one segment out of service, that percentage goes down to about 1.65%.

“As one might expect, the relatively minor impact of Line 5 crude on the amount of gasoline refined at Marathon Detroit has had no noticeable impact on the price of gasoline in Michigan nor in Toronto,” Street’s study reads.

Since retiring from engineering, then from consulting, Street has been doing pro bono work for a variety of environmental organizations including the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), FLOW (For Love of Water) the Straits of Mackinac Alliance and the anti-Line 5 Oil & Water Don’t Mix coalition.

“When you work with Enbridge, you learn very quickly that you can’t trust anything they say,” Street said. “In fact, so often it’s almost the reverse.”

Nessel got Line 5 shut down, for now. Enviros say Whitmer can shut it down for good.

Enbridge spokesperson Ryan Duffy rebuffed the study in an email Monday.

“It is not accurate to say that if one of the segments in the Straits is down that means there is 50 percent less product moving, that’s not how it works,” Duffy said. “As we are operating only the west segment right now we are at a somewhat reduced capacity but we are continuing to meet demand.”

Duffy did not specifically address the conclusions of Street’s study, but offered an Enbridge informational sheet about what the company views as economic impacts that a temporary shutdown would have on Michigan. Those consequences include a shortage of crude oil to the region — about 45% of current supply.

David Holtz, a spokesperson for Oil & Water Don’t Mix, told the Advance Monday that the study proves Enbridge’s claims should not be trusted at face value.

“Dire warnings about skyrocketing gas prices and long lines at the pump if Line 5 is shut down were never credible and were debunked by independent experts,” Holtz said. “Perhaps now that we have an actual Line 5 shutdown to measure the impact, Enbridge’s claims will be treated with the deep skepticism they deserve.

“Michigan needs to focus on the real threat — a Line 5 failure that devastates the Great Lakes with a catastrophic oil spill.”

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.