2015-06-04 / Opinion

The Economics of ‘Big Oil’ and the Straits of Mackinac

To the Editor:

As a pipeline design professional, it’s interesting to consider how many “Big Oil” engineers would choose to continue using Line 5. Replacement would be preferable, but of course we in the Straits of Mackinac area would choose removal or decommissioning of the 62-year-old pipeline. There are parts of the pipeline that have not been seen in 62 years. How could engineers possibly know its condition? Variables include how much movement there is in the positioning of the pipeline, variation in pressure and temperature, and what kind of steel was selected for the pipeline back in 1953.

Line 5 carries 23 million gallons of crude oil across the floor of our Straits of Mackinac every day. In candid conversations with petroleum engineers and metallurgical engineers, I am told Line 5 should last between 50 years and 100 years. We are 12 years past 50 years. In 38 years, we will be at the end of the time estimates. We are making predictions based on probability, not a measure of wear and tear. The question is: Will line 5 last forever? If not, when will it be removed or replaced?

The Mackinac Bridge was paid for and is maintained by tolls collected on each trip. If Enbridge used trucks to transport its crude oil across the Straits, at least we would collect a toll for each truck. It would be equally fair to collect a similar toll for crossing the Straits through the pipeline. The toll could be used to replace and repair the aging pipeline as needed. We are not unreasonable people here in the Straits of Mackinac, but we want to be treated fairly. The playing field is grossly uneven between “Big Oil” and our small community, and needs to be fixed.

The paramount issue for us is that Enbridge is putting at risk our eco- nomic future. It is profoundly unfair that Enbridge is making all these decisions. If there is a significant oil spill, many of us would lose our businesses, while Enbridge would only have to dip into its emergency fund. The risks are unequal, and the decisions are made by Enbridge only. Reading about the aftermath of the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion, loss of 11 lives, and 87 days of out-of-control blowout, there is no way the impact of a spill can be returned to the way the beaches, lake bottoms, and Mackinac Island were before the spill.

What is an engineer at Enbridge going to do and say about Line 5? If he or she had the courage to tell the truth, he or she would be fired. I can’t imagine that the engineers at Enbridge think they should continue to use Line 5, but they can’t do anything about it. From line engineer to the CEO, nobody can tell the truth about Line 5 without losing their job. This has become a political decision, not an engineering decision. Safety takes the backseat to continued quarterly profit, stock price, and dividend.

Airlines are handed airplanes by Boeing and Airbus with a TBO (time before overhaul) on each engine, and the number of pressurization cycles for takeoffs and landings. Airline engineers can take this manufacturing data to their board of directors and explain why they need to take a Boeing 737 off the line at LAX and sell it for scrap. Big Oil needs the same protection. Big Oil probably thinks they are too big and too well connected to ever have to pay their fair share of the infrastructure of their product transportation. Do they have too many Big Oil campaign contributors? It would cost the equivalent of one truck, three axle, $15 each way on the Mackinac Bridge. How could this ever be seen as unfair?

Enbridge is using our money to play poker with our economic future. They are not risking their economic future. This game is unfair. Politicians, however, are bankrolled by “Big Oil” and cannot do the right thing. They can only do the “Big Oil” right thing.

I trust Enbridge engineers to do the highest quality professional work, and I trust Enbridge to be willing to pay their fair share of doing business in Michigan. They just need to play fair.

Donald Fullenwider

Architect and Planner

Mackinaw City

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