Oil and Water, and Fear: Examining the Media’s Oil Pipeline Scare

The United States in recent years has grown its global position as a crude oil producer to a degree that was unimaginable just 20 years ago. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and other technological advancements have made it feasible for energy companies to reach oil that once seemed hopelessly imprisoned beneath the earth.  And with the Trump administration sending signals that it favors expanded oil exploration and production, there is no ceiling to growth in America’s energy prominence in the foreseeable future. These developments are anathema to the environmental left, which has peddled a “we’re running out of oil” narrative for decades.

Their apparent goal is to move the world away from fossil fuel as quickly as possible, whether a viable replacement exists or not. Increased U.S. crude oil production runs counter to that goal. With their efforts to regulate fracking out of existence failing, their new strategy appears to be a stifling of distribution. Oil that cannot get to refineries stays in the ground. So, the environmentalists favored target is now pipelines that would carry crude from the oil fields to refineries. And they are finding the mainstream media an invaluable ally in this fight.

Hundreds of protesters, many from outside the area, succeeded in stalling the Dakota Access pipeline when the Obama administration put the project on hold. The protesters, inexplicably challenging a blizzard after the project had been stopped, found themselves a desired target of cable network cameras.

Similarly, the squeaky wheel of environmentalism, amplified by a sympathetic media, also played a critical role in stopping the Keystone XL pipeline. Now, the Wisconsin media is engaging in what can be described as a scare campaign to incite opposition to oil pipelines here. Every successful scare campaign needs a bogeyman and the media scare template, set decades ago, favors a “big business” villain. The Badger State Media believes they have that villain in Enbridge. We refer specifically two a recent two-part investigative effort, “Oil and Water” by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Dan Egan.

In Part I, “Path of Least Resistance,” Egan paints a picture of Wisconsinites living in ignorant bliss as millions of barrels of Canadian tar sands crude oil rush through Enbridge pipelines beneath their feet, threatening to burst at any moment. And he implies that Enbridge has employed a “patchwork” expansion strategy designed to avoid the glare of media attention and, consequently, any organized opposition. Media Trackers reached out to Enbridge spokesperson Jennifer Smith to address several of the issues Egan raised in his piece.

Egan: In 2014, an Enbridge-hired work crew arrived at the door of (property owner’s home)Marshfield home and informed him they needed to take a new survey of his 10-acre property. The reason, he was told, is that Enbridge is considering adding a new Wisconsin oil pipeline.


Smith: “Let me make clear, while we have been very upfront about exploring the potential for a new pipeline, the company has not made that decision to move forward. There are a number of factors, including the need. There is also a robust regulatory process to go through. Secondly, we have relationships with landowners across the original line built in the late 1960s. If we build a new line, we’ll go talk with any property owner on any proposed line. There are a number of areas along this corridor that have grown. If we move forward with constructing a new pipeline, it would be announced publicly. We will notify landowners and other stakeholders to start this process and look at where we could construct.” Smith confirms that they had surveyors out in 2014 and 2015 along the existing corridor, which surveyed up to 300 feet outside the existing right of way. Smith called it a data gathering exercise about what has built up. She says it’s also something Endbridge uses internally for emergency response time planning or to assist maintenance crews in the area.


“With that consultation, our goal is to come to amicable easement agreements with all landowners through any proposed route. While the state of Wisconsin does have legislation on eminent domain and if the PSC deems a project is for the greater good that authority can be granted to a business or corporation, our goal is always to come to an amicable agreement. These are relationships we need for years to come for maintenance and other needs.


On the topic of eminent domain,  Egan writes in the piece that “…Enbridge successfully lobbied the Wisconsin legislature in 2015 to adjust a state law so private land along the easement can be more easily condemned, a move that could open the door to expanding the easement’s width through the state – with or without adjacent property owner’s consent.”

As for Enbridge “successfully lobbying the legislature,” Smith says:

My understanding is there is documentation in the public domain that shows conversations occurred regarding the language change to Act 55 between a state legislator’s office and either Enbridge’s lobbyist or local counsel.


But as to whether Act 55 benefits Enbridge, she adds:

Technically no, as there is an Enbridge  business that is a Wisconsin corporation. However the change in Act 55, which updated the statute to include modern day business structures, provided companies like Enbridge with options on the type of business entity we would be able to apply for eminent domain authority with. Some argue that the change in Act 55 resulted in an expansion of eminent domain, but the process to obtain eminent domain authority continues unchanged.  Eminent domain authority can only be granted through the regulatory process by the Wisconsin Public Service Commission. 

A Wisconsin Legislative Council memorandum in response to questions raised by Representative Adam Jarchow about Act 55 seems to support Smith’s position:

   1. Does Act 55 Grant any new powers of eminent domain or condemnation authority             to oil  companies?      


No. Act 55 does allow an oil pipeline company that is authorized to use eminent domain authority to be organized as a different type of business other than a “corporation,” but the Act did not expand the eminent domain authority of such companies.


 2. Does Act 55 change any of the state permitting requirements that oil pipeline companies must meet to site, construct or operate a new or expanded pipeline?


Act 55 did not change any state permitting requirements specific to oil pipelines. At the local level, the Act did prohibit towns and counties from imposing requirements that are expressly preempted by federal or state law as conditions for approving a conditional use permit for an oil pipeline, and prohibited them from imposing insurance requirements on an operator of an oil pipeline company if it carries specified insurance. There is some question as to whether towns or counties had either of these authorities prior to the Act.

Egan: Egan’s piece spends a lot of time  discussing how Enbridge  has laid large-capacity pipelines that “initially carry much lower volumes of oil. And then, new pump station after new pump station, pressure is ratcheted up on those lines to the point they end up with flows that are (Keystone) XL-sized and larger. He cites example as an example:

“When Enbridge’s newest pipeline running through Wisconsin opened in 2009, the Wisconsin Department of natural Resources evaluated it as a line that would carry 400,000 barrels per day. That number grew to 560,000 barrels per day by 2014. It will soon be carrying 1.2 million barrels per day.”


 Smith: When it was constructed and permitted in the 2008 time frame, it was known it was going to    carry  400,000 barrels. It was designed, tested and constructed to carry about 1.2 million barrels.


Egan: “How could all this oil flow through such a water-blessed and populated part of the country with little debate or protest when there has been so much rancor over the smaller and more remote Keystone XL and Dakota lines?


Mostly because Enbridge has had pipelines in Wisconsin for so long that their existence predates today’s concerns about climate change and other environmental problems related to the transport of oil.


Smith: “All of Enbridge’s projects are based on demands from the marketplace. Each new pipeline project that Enbridge undertakes is distinct in that it has its own customers, market need and timeline. The regulatory process and permitting of these projects is determined at both the Federal and State levels. (Plus, there are also a number of local permitting considerations when it comes to drain crossings, road use, etc.) Enbridge adheres to all federal, state and local permitting requirements and constructs our pipelines in compliance with the inspection, mitigation and restoration mandates imposed by these agencies as well.


Egan: In the second installment of his series, titled “Dangerous Straits,” Egan calls into the question the stability of an Enbridge line running under the Straits of Mackinaw.


But it is more than water and wind that rip through the Straits. So does the material on the lake bottom. The currents measured today can, at times, be double what the original pipeline engineers calculated. That rushing water has been inexorably scouring away the lake bed upon which the pipes were original placed. This has created unsupported spans in the pipelines the design engineers never expected.


Smith: “It’s essential to note that the safety or integrity of the Straits Crossing has never been compromised. The lakes are a dynamic environment – especially at the Straits where the two Great Lakes meet – and conditions change frequently, including on the lake bed. We anticipated that at times there can be changes to the lake bottom.


In fact, when Line 5 was built in 1953, its state-of-the-art engineering design included supports on the lake bed and regular measurements to understand the impact of currents and resulting erosion. Our robust integrity and inspection programs allow us to identify any areas that require attention.


On the outside of the pipeline, we use remotely operated vehicles with high definition cameras and autonomous underwater vehicles equipped with sonar to look for any changes. Enbridge started using the screw anchor supports in 2002 in areas that need additional support.


Since 2002, we have added 124 support anchors, which have historically performed well with no observed environmental impact. The 1953 easement agreement with the State of Michigan called for spans placed at a distance not to exceed 75 feet. Although the average span distance across the Straits is now 50 feet, periodically some spans have exceeded the original 75-foot requirement, requiring installation of new supports. In 2014, for example, Enbridge undertook an anchor supports project with 40 new supports added that year. And in 2016, we added four new supports.


When informing Michigan environmental regulators of they need for the work in 2001, Egan says they described it as “emergency preventative,” which he calls an “urgent tone.” Even if that characterization is accurate, the reality is the pipes are now more firmly anchored to the lake bed. Yet Egan isn’t satisfied, arguing that “the steel could have incurred invisible structural damage during the periods the pipes were left hanging in the swirling current, much like a prizefighter who has taken too many body blows.”

Conveniently for Egan, this hypothetical damage would be “invisible,” so there is no evidence to suggest it is a legitimate threat.

Environmental websites dedicated to opposing any expansion of Enbridge lines suggest that it’s not so much the pipeline, but the oil coursing through it that they oppose. From 350madison.org:

Tar sands oil is also far more carbon-polluting than conventional fossil fuels. Top climate scientist James Hansen has said that continued expansion of tar sands extraction means “game over for the climate.”

From a document found at 80feetisenough.org (a reference to Enbridge’s current easement):


We don’t need the oil and we don’t need the risk posed by more pipelines. The alternative to expanding the Enbridge network of oil pipelines is simply to not expand. There will be no shortage of fuel, no rise in prices, and no harm to the economy. In fact, the more oil we import the longer it will take us to transition away from fossil fuels to cleaner alternatives.


Enbridge’s Jennifer Smith responds:

 The U.S. is the largest consumer oil products in the world. Our lives depend on safe and reliable delivery of energy. Every day pipelines deliver the energy we need to fuel vehicles, heat homes, power agriculture and grow jobsEnbridge, and our over 350 employees, in Wisconsin are proud of the service we provide to Wisconsin residents every, single day. At the same time, Enbridge recognizes that climate change is a critical issue. While we don’t produce the fossil fuels we transport, we’re committed to advancing climate solutions within our company, within our industry and at a broader collaborative level with our customers, partners and stakeholders. As a transporter of energy products, our focus is on the safe and reliable operations of our pipelines.  Our energy and climate strategies continue to focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from our existing operations, and designing new infrastructure to maximize energy efficiency. We believe that meaningful greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions will require effective public policies and regulations based on collaboration between government, industry, communities, environmental organizations and consumers.


And Smith points out that Enbridge is also in the green energy business:


In addition to petroleum and Natural Gas pipelines, Enbridge is among Canada’s largest generators of solar and wind power and we’re growing our green energy business in the U.S. Together our renewable and alternative energy projects represent nearly 2,800 megawatts (gross) of green power generation capacity. Of this total, we own about 1,900 megawatts (MW) of net generating capacity. We plan to double this capacity by 2019. Based on gross generation figures, our portfolio of green power projects has the potential to meet the electricity needs of more than one million homes.


Enbridge has been named to Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporates list for the eighth straight year and has moved up to No. 39 overall.


As for Egan, it’s notable that he has penned a book titled “ The Death and Life of the Great Lakes,” which an online promotional synopsis describes as:

In a work of narrative reporting in the vein of Rachel Carson (author of “Silent Spring,” which led to the banning of the pesticide DDT) and Elizabeth Kolbert, prize-winning reporter Dan Egan delivers an eye-opening portrait of our nation’s greatest natural resource as it faces ecological calamity. He tells the story of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Chicago ship canal—good ideas in their time that have had horrendous consequences.

President Donald Trump has suggested that his administration will allow for a dramatic increase in fossil fuel exploration. As the United States produces more oil there are three ways to move it from the field to the refinery: rail car, tanker truck or pipeline. Pipeline is the most practical. Fear mongering journalism about pipelines serves the environmental agenda of keeping the oil in the ground.