More Tar Sands Oil Coming Through Michigan


Oh joy. The State Department has approved, apparently illegally, a request by Enbridge, the company responsible for spilling almost a million gallons of tar sands crude into the Kalamazoo River in 2010, to double the amount of such oil flowing through another of their Michigan pipelines.

Enbridge, a giant Canadian oil pipeline company, operates a vast array of pipelines through the Great Lakes region that carry climate-disrupting, toxic tar sands from Northern Alberta to refineries in the region and beyond. The main artery for this system is Alberta Clipper, a 1,000 mile line that transports tar sands to terminus in Superior, Wisconsin, where the tar sands is either refined or loaded onto other pipes for refinery or possible export.

Alberta Clipper currently has a Presidential Permit allowing it to ship up to 450,000 barrels per day (bpd) on the that line. To fulfill the industry’s desire to increase carbon intensive tar sands extraction, Enbridge submitted an Application to the State Department in November of 2012 to ultimately approximately double the amount of tar sands flowing through Alberta Clipper to 880,000 bpd. This would make it larger than the controversial Keystone XL pipeline…

In a June 16, 2014 letter made public by the State Department on August 20, 2014, Enbridge attorneys provided details of a plan first laid out in a referenced meeting between Enbridge and State Department officials on June 3, 2014 to approximately double the capacity of Alberta Clipper without going through the required review process.

Enbridge’s plan is to increase the volume of the flow of tar sands on Alberta Clipper by pumping tar sands to a neighboring pipeline (Line 3) north of the US/Canada border and then pumping it back to Alberta Clipper just south of the border. Line 3 has a Presidential Permit, but unlike Alberta Clipper’s permit it does not appear to expressly limit the capacity of that line. However, Line 3 is not a tar sands pipeline and was not approved as such.

This switch would currently allow an increase of volume of tar sands on the Alberta Clipper line of up to 800,000 bpd. This would effectively double the flow of carbon intensive tar sands on the line – the very thing Enbridge is seeking in its permit application and State Department is supposedly reviewing…

On July 24, 2014, Patrick Dunn, a mid-level State Department official, wrote a letter to Enbridge’s attorneys stating that Enbridge’s plan to move up to 800,000 bpd on Alberta Clipper by switching lines with Line 3 at the border does “not require authorization.” This is like interpreting a speed limit as only applying to the road, but not the road’s shoulder.

To make matters worse, this letter was never made public or subjected to public review. The Keystone XL pipeline – which is indefinitely delayed – has already received millions of public comments expressing concern over the impacts of tar sands.

Enbridge’s proposal violates its permit which does not allow it ship more tar sands and also appears to violate Line 3′s permit, which does not contemplate moving such a high volume of tar sands. State Department must follow the law before approving the proposed change. Enbridge’s permit limits the flow on Alberta Clipper to 450,000 and State Department has already made clear any increase requires an amended permit and comprehensive environmental review.

One of the pipelines runs under the Mackinac bridge between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. A leak there would be devastating. They still haven’t completely cleaned up the oil spilled in 2014, largely because tar sands crude reacts very differently when it hits water than conventional crude in ways that make it far harder to capture.

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