McKibben Connects Straits Pipeline to Global Climate Fight

July 16, 2013 |

BIll McKibben, co-founder of and leading climate activist.
“If I were Exxon/Mobil or Shell Oil or Enbridge, I’d be scared now,” McKibben told the crowd of 400 at the Oil and Water Don’t Mix Rally. “They are used to being left alone; but now there’s a huge fight going on against what they are doing, and you, by being here today, are part of it.” (Photo: J. Carl Ganter, Circle of Blue)

ST. IGNACE, Mich.—Sunday’s “Oil and Water Don’t Mix” rally drew about 400 people to Bridge View Park at the north end of the Mackinac Bridge for what proved to be equal parts prayer meeting, technical report, political update, personal testimonials and motivational concertizing. Under bright and breezy skies, they listened as speakers warned about the aging oil pipeline that lies west of the bridge, beneath the Straits of Mackinac’s sparkling, cobalt blue waters.

From the opening wood flute solo by a member of the Little Traverse Band of Odawa Indians, to the closing, full-throated sing-along of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” the rally called on the audience to act to cut the environmental and economics risks to the Great Lakes posed by the 60-year-old Enbridge pipeline.

It also offered a glimpse into the growing, nationwide, inter-generational movement to slow climate change by moving the country away from extreme extraction methods used to power the nation—including tearing tar sands from boreal forests in northern Alberta.

“The good news is that we have the technology we need to stop using fossil fuels,” said keynote speaker Bill McKibben, a longtime climate activist, founder of the anti-global warming group, and leader of the movement to stop the proposed Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline. “And I see our movement rising everywhere now. We have chapters in every country except North Korea.”

Organized by TC350—Traverse City’s chapter—in collaboration with the Michigan Land Use Institute, and sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation, the Michigan Environmental Council and other groups, the rally highlighted the risks of pumping crude oil through the submerged pipeline.

Pointing to reports by the NWF, speakers reminded the crowd that Enbridge spilled 800,000 gallons of tar-sands oil, also known as diluted bitumen or dilbit, into the Kalamazoo River in 2010, badly mishandled its accident response, and is still cleaning up heavy oil stuck to the riverbed.

Rally organizers urged people to sign an online petition pressing Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to demand better protection of the Great Lakes from the pipeline—which daily carries almost 22 million gallons of oil and gas products from Superior, Wis., to refineries in Sarnia, Ontario. The pipe, known as Line 5, crosses beneath the Great Lakes twice and passes through or near many Michigan inland lakes and streams.

The organizers want the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to make Enbridge replace Line 5 with modern piping and sensor technology and permanently ban its use for tar sands oil, which, as the Kalamazoo spill demonstrated, can be nearly impossible to clean up because, unlike conventional oil, it can sink in fresh water.

Enbridge’s pipeline splits into two smaller lines at the Straits that have extra-thick walls. Spokesmen say the firm keeps the pipes in top shape, monitors them closely, and has no plans to use them for dilbit because there’s no demand for it at refineries the line serves.

But Beth Wallace, co-author of NWF reports on Enbridge’s Kalamazoo spill and Straits pipeline, urged rally-goers to be skeptical of the global pipeline giant’s claims. After recounting company assertions about its safety and accident response plans, she ticked off recent Enbridge pipeline spills involving thousands of gallons of crude.

She also criticized Enbridge and regulatory agencies for the expansion of the firm’s North American pumping capacity, including for tar sands oil, while avoiding additional permitting.

“They skipped the required presidential permitting process when they increased the flow rate of Line 5 simply by turning up the pumps to send 2 million more gallons of oil through it every day,” she said. “Enbridge must be held to the highest possible standards by the Environmental Protection Agency and PHMSA. And the company must agree to no tar sands, ever, through this pipeline.”

Around 400 people rallied on July 14 to raise awareness about an aging oil pipeline that runs under the Mackinac Straits. (Photo: J. Carl Ganter, Circle of Blue)
Around 400 people rallied on July 14 to raise awareness about an aging oil pipeline that runs under the Mackinac Straits. (Photo: J. Carl Ganter, Circle of Blue)

Connecting Dots and Pipelines

McKibben said the fight against global warming that he sees rising everywhere are all interconnected—including the Michigan pushback against Enbridge and resistance to the Keystone XL line.

The respected author first surveyed the almost daily bad news about climate change: super storms like Hurricane Sandy; record-sized tornados that leveled swaths of Oklahoma; more—and more severe—droughts and wildfires; an Arctic Ocean that, for the first time in recorded history, mostly melts in the summer; and more heat waves and floods.

But, he said, even though he’s often a pessimist, he’s turning hopeful about the fight to curb global warming’s worst effects: “When I talked to the Canadian tribes about our efforts to help them stop the mining of tar sands on their lands, they said, ‘We can tell you are having an effect.’”

“If we manage to stop warming,” McKibben told the crowd, “you will have done the most important thing you could ever possibly do. What happens over the next 10 years will determine what happens to us over the next 10,000.”

He also urged the crowd to use the power it has when people act as one.

“There is a movement rising,” he said, “and many beautiful things are happening. The big companies have lots of money, but we have other kinds of currencies to fight back.”

“If I were Exxon/Mobil or Shell Oil or Enbridge, I’d be scared now,” he added. “They are used to being left alone; but now there’s a huge fight going on against what they are doing, and you, by being here today, are part of it.”

The Power to Change

Several other speakers delivered more personal messages about how dire circumstances pulled them into the fight to slow climate change, and that it taught them to be brave.

Jeff Spoelstra, of the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council, said that when he saw and smelled the pipeline spilling heavy crude into a creek and wetland feeding the Kalamazoo River, it was a “hit to the gut.”

Spoelstra described a river turned black from bank to bank, wetlands buried in sticky black goo, the sickening smell of volatile chemicals, and a long, excruciating cleanup that is still not complete, due to extraordinarily hard-to-remove tar sitting on the river bottom.

The spill’s sheer awfulness moved him deeply, he said.

“I was scared to get involved,” he admitted, reflecting the feelings that many who understand climate change are reluctant to voice. “You’ll be nervous when you start getting involved, but you’ll keep moving forward and find that you are helping to change things.”

Jarret Schlaff, who traveled from southwest Detroit to speak at the rally, also spoke of facing deep fears when he began fighting against the large piles of toxic, dusty petroleum coke—a byproduct of refined tar sands oil—that sit along the Detroit River, polluting local air and homes. The substance is destined to fuel coal-fired power