In 2006, Enbridge Inc. sought permission from the State of Wisconsin to build a pipeline, known as Line 61. It would be forty-two inches in diameter, and carry 400,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day over 322 miles. The proposal was approved. In 2014, the company asked to up its capacity to 1.2 million barrels per day, at a higher velocity. That was also approved, without public hearings near where the pipeline would be, or an updated environmental impact statement.
"Either they didn't tell the truth about their expansion plans in the first place, or they installed an absurdly large pipeline for their presumed load," says Peter Anderson, a longtime Wisconsin environmentalist with 350.org.
Ben Callan, a wastewater specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), explains that his agency cannot control the substance or volume of what passes through the pipeline. "That's beyond our authority."
Elizabeth Ward, conservation programs coordinator for the John Muir Chapter of the Sierra Club, counters that the DNR has a duty to protect the state's natural resources. The pipeline crosses more than 200 streams, 750 wetland areas, and 115 miles of forest. "When a pipe has pressure that high, we don't know what the risk of a rupture is," she says.
A 2011 study of tar sands pipelines by the Natural Resources Defense Council found they were three times more likely to spill than traditional crude oil lines, and twenty-three times more likely to rupture from external corrosion. "We can't know what a spill means without an environmental impact assessment," says Ward.
To complete the Line 61 expansion, Enbridge needed only to renovate three existing pumping stations and build another nine stations along the line. Doing so required filling out a few pages of paperwork with local zoning commissions in fourteen counties.
Were it not for some surprise pushback from a zoning committee in Dane County in early 2014, Enbridge would have sailed through the permitting process. The committee balked at providing a conditional use permit for the expansion, citing its duty to protect the public safety and properly analyze the risks.
"I was struck by the magnitude of Enbridge's ambitions and worried about the implications of a potential spill," says Patrick Miles, chairman of the county's zoning and land regulation committee. The committee asked state officials to complete a new environmental impact statement and hold public hearings to inform...