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Crude oil transportation in the Great Lakes region continues to attract attention from regional organizations and policy makers

Approximately 80 people participated in a symposium in Cleveland on June 8 and 9 that was designed to increase understanding of the complexity of crude oil movement in and through the Great Lakes region. The meeting (Crude Move: Oil Transportation Infrastructure, Economics, Risk, Hazards, and Lessons Learned) was hosted by three Great Lakes organizations engaged in policy discussions related to crude oil transportation: Great Lakes Sea Grant Network, the International Joint Commission, and the Great Lakes Commission. The meeting featured presentations from regional emergency response organizations, Enbridge Energy Partners, the insurance industry, and government agencies. Some of the sessions focused on lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the pipeline spill in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and the rail incident in Lac Megantic, Quebec.

Although conference participants appeared to agree that pipelines offer the safest method of transportation for crude oil, risks related to the pipeline that crosses the Straits of Mackinac was mentioned as an ongoing concern at several points during the conference. Enbridge VP Brad Shamla emphasized that the Line 5 pipeline across the Straits transports 70% of the light crude (not heavy crude) oil and natural gas liquids that are refined in the Great Lakes region to produce gasoline, home heating fuels, diesel fuel for agricultural equipment, and jet fuel for air planes. He noted that, without pipelines, the oil that Enbridge transports each day would have to be moved by 15,000 trucks or 50 trains, which would present much greater safety and environmental risks to the region. He described the safety procedures and equipment that Enbridge has put in place to protect against pipeline spills, including the enhanced safety measures that the company has implemented since the Kalamazoo oil spill. He emphasized that the company has intensely identified and evaluated lessons learned from the Kalamazoo incident and emphasized that safety is the company’s highest current priority.

A key focus of the conference was the meaning and measurement of “risk” as related to crude oil transportation. Conference participants considered the risk of crude oil transportation in the region as defined by the insurance industry, emergency responders, organizations committed to ecosystem protection, and the tribal communities that depend on Great Lakes aquatic resources for sustenance. For purposes of the conference, risk was defined as “the probability of an event occurring and its associated consequences.” During discussion participants emphasized that crude oil movement in the Great Lakes region presents unique risks compared to other regions because ice and winter weather conditions can complicate cleanups, and because millions of people rely on the Great Lakes for drinking water.

A few days before the symposium, the Great Lakes Commission released three studies pertaining to crude oil transportation. Dr. Bradley Hull III of John Carroll University prepared a report that describes the infrastructure related to crude oil transportation in the region. Dr. Jerome Marty of the University of Waterloo presented the results of a multimodal approach to evaluating the environmental sensitivity of oil exposure in the Great Lakes region. Finally, Dr. Marcello Graziano of Central Michigan University presented a study entitled The Economic Impact of Crude Oil Transportation in the Great Lakes, which evaluated the size and characteristics of the crude oil transportation industry in the region (i.e., pipelines, railroads, and associated facilities) and estimated its economic impact. The report suggests that transferring crude oil from pipelines to rail would have a minor negative economic impact on US companies in the industry and would have a positive impact on Canadian companies, and concludes that transporting crude oil by rail generated roughly $2.5B in environmental and social costs during the period 2007 and 2015, whereas spills from pipelines in the region generated $1.3B in environmental and social costs between 2010 and 2015. The reports are available on the Great Lakes Commission website,