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Proposed pipelines for Great Lakes worry environmentalists

Monday, July 8, 2002

By Sarah Kellogg
Washington Bureau


In the last year, four lines have been proposed or approved that would transmit electricity or pump natural gas across lakes Superior and Erie.

More than 20 shorter pipelines are resting on the bottomlands of the lakes or rivers connecting the lakes. Four pipelines -- two for oil or liquid gas and two for natural gas -- cross the Straits of Mackinac.

Energy-company plans to build more and longer pipelines on the Great Lakes have members of Congress and environmentalists worried.

"We do see this as an emerging trend," said Jennifer Nalbone, a spokeswoman for Great Lakes United, a regional environmental group. "Utility companies don't see the Great Lakes basin as an obstacle to go around anymore. We don't think we want to see the lakes being turned into a thoroughfare."

This week, members of the Great Lakes Task Force, a working group of members of Congress from the region, will ask their colleagues to approve a plan to study the long-term environmental impact of locating pipelines under or on the beds of the lakes.

Earlier this year, Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat, attached the environmental study proposal to the president's energy bill, which is pending in a House-Senate conference committee and is expected to come up for vote in the next month.

"It is obvious that energy transmission infrastructure is important, but it is critical that we understand the impacts of placing this infrastructure across the lake beds," Levin said. "It is also imperative that we develop a long-term strategy for their placement."

Michigan is at the heart of this debate not just because it rests at the center of the Great Lakes but also because many of the pipelines in Great Lakes waters run from its shorelines.

Along with the Mackinac pipelines, Michigan has two natural gas lines crossing the Saint Marys River at Sault Ste. Marie; seven pipelines -- five natural gas and two crude oil -- crossing the St. Claire River at Port Huron; and two pipelines -- one natural gas and one liquefied petroleum gas -- running through the Detroit River in Detroit.

Natural gas pipelines also run from wells in lakes Erie and Ontario.

Michigan officials say they believe the existing pipelines are safe vehicles for transporting natural gas and crude oil.

"On a daily basis, I don't think they're much to worry about," said Ken Silfven, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

But Silfven said the state would be especially interested in reviewing any plans for large-scale pipelines that cross greater distances.

"Depending on the project, we would look at an oil pipeline with a little bit more of a critical eye," Silfven said. "That's not to say the existing ones are dangerous or you shouldn't build new ones."

That's where the state and environmentalists diverge.

"We're getting into lines that are lines of convenience more than they are lines of necessity," said James Clift, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council, a state environmental group. "It comes down to the fact they don't want to go through the hassle of going along the shoreline or going through private property. It's easier to go through the lakes."

Industry officials say it isn't easier at all, especially given the hoops they jump through to ensure the projects are safe for the public and the environment. Great Lakes pipelines go through an extensive review process and must be approved by local, state, federal and international agencies before they can even begin construction.

"This is a complex process that involves a great deal of review," said Terry Boss, vice president of environments and safety for the Interstate Natural Gas Association, which represents gas transmission companies.

Boss said that the public may not realize how common a process it is to lay pipelines across both small and large bodies of water.

"We have been building pipelines underneath rivers, lakes and the ocean for many, many years," said Boss. "The Gulf of Mexico has a significant number of pipelines."

And that's why environmentalists are concerned. The four proposed pipelines or energy transmission lines for the Great Lakes could be the tip of the iceberg, Nalbone says.

The Millennium Pipeline is closest to reality. It would send natural gas 93.4 miles across Lake Erie between New York and Canada. The pipeline has been approved in the United States, although an appeal is pending before the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Another proposal would lay three electric transmission lines along a 90-mile trench in Lake Erie, connecting Canada to three sites in Ohio and Pennsylvania. A third proposal would lay transmission cables from Thunder Bay, Ontario, through Lake Superior to Isle Royale, then on to the Keweenaw Peninsula. The final proposal would run a shorter natural gas pipeline under Lake Erie between Buffalo and Ontario.

"There is a great need for energy and to keep the lights on," Nalbone said. "But communities don't want these lines going across the lakes. It's a risk they're not willing to take."

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