Oil and gas lobby files to slash new federal pipeline safety rule

By: - March 9, 2022 5:26 am

Ceremonial rock in Mackinac Straits prior to Anishinaabek water ceremony at McGulpin Point, Mackinaw City | Laina G. Stebbins

Updated, 1:45 p.m., 3/9/22

In December, environmentalists hailed a new federal rule to tighten up safety rules for pipelines located in particularly sensitive areas — like the Line 5 pipeline in Michigan, which transports oil under the environmentally sensitive Straits of Mackinac.

That rule is now seeing pushback from two powerful advocacy groups for America’s oil and gas industry. One of those groups, the American Petroleum Institute (API), lists Canadian pipeline company Enbridge as one of its nearly 600 member companies.

The Washington, D.C.-based API and Oklahoma-based GPA Midstream jointly filed a petition last week to halt the new rule. The groups argue that neither received an adequate amount of time to comment on the rule before it was listed as finalized.

The oil and gas advocacy groups also claim that the rule’s new definition of unusually sensitive areas (USAs) is broader than what Congress intended.

The rule, adopted and implemented by the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), is meant to strengthen pipeline regulations to be enforced by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

That federal agency is the one Enbridge argues has the sole legal right to decommission the Line 5 pipeline, as opposed to the state of Michigan (which is fighting in court to shut down the line).

The agency has so far been quick to greenlight Enbridge’s requests, but both PHMSA and USDOT have undergone some left-leaning administrative changes since then.

The new PHMSA rule that now faces a challenge from the oil and gas lobby cites Enbridge’s catastrophic 2010 Line 6B oil spill in Marshall as a reason for requiring pipelines in USAs to have stronger integrity management programs that include inspections, repair and emergency response plan requirements.

But even before the recent filing, Enbridge has claimed that its safety standards are already in compliance with the new rule and that it would not affect Line 5.

As an API member, Enbridge declined to say outright whether the company supports or opposes its effort to halt the new rule.

“Enbridge’s Line 5 integrity management program already meets these requirements of the new rule for the Great Lakes,” Enbridge spokesperson Michael Barnes said Tuesday.

Enbridge, St. Ignace | Susan J. Demas

“Our goal is to protect the waters of the Great Lakes while safely and reliably delivering affordable energy to Michigan and the region daily. Our commitment to protect the environment hasn’t wavered.”

Barnes went on to elaborate on how its monitoring system complies with the rule for Line 5, like how the company always has “eyes on the Straits” via fixed cameras.

The Advance asked again whether Enbridge supports the API’s effort to stay the new rule.

“Our comment stands as is. … We are already in compliance,” Barnes said.

The Enbridge-owned Line 5 pipeline has been a point of controversy in Michigan for more than a decade, with environmentalists, tribes and other advocates expressing concerns about transparency and safety when it comes to the nearly 70-year-old pipeline.

The Pipeline Safety Trust (PST), a pipeline safety advocacy group based in Washington, called on PHMSA to deny the petition from API and GPA Midstream.

“Pipeline operators have enjoyed this regulatory loophole for far too long and Congress has twice mandated this very specific fix,” said PST Executive Director Bill Caram. “This bad faith stalling effort puts our prized coastal waters, including the Great Lakes, which contain 84% of North America’s surface fresh water, at unnecessary risk.”

PST argues that slashing the protections would be detrimental to the Great Lakes, along with other coastal waters and coastal beaches, that are particularly sensitive to contaminants like oil spills.

Caram also noted that the oil and gas industry has had “ample opportunity” to participate in the rulemaking process over the last several years, and had representatives on each panel for multiple public meetings.

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.), who authored the provision for the rule within the Protecting our Infrastructure of Pipelines and Enhancing Safety (PIPES) Act, did not immediately return a request for comment.

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. 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. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).

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