By Philip Mattera
Canadian pipeline giant Enbridge has generated controversy both because of its own performance problems—including a 2010 accident in Michigan that ranks as the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history—as well as its role in facilitating the distribution of oil produced in environmentally destructive situations such as the Alberta tar sands. In the course of building its pipelines across long distances, Enbridge has often encountered resistance from First Nations communities and other landowners, especially when eminent domain was used to obtain the land.
Enbridge’s pipeline business dates back to the 1940s, when Canada’s Imperial Oil Company (owned by Exxon Mobil predecessor Standard Oil of New Jersey) experienced a surge in production at its oil fields in Alberta. Seeking to market its product over longer distances, Imperial formed the Interprovincial Pipe Line Co. (IPL), which was authorized by the Canadian government to build a 450-mile line from Edmonton to Regina, Saskatchewan. The company later extended its pipeline much farther—to southeastern Ontario and parts of the United States.
In 1999 the company—which in 1998 changed its name to Enbridge (“energy” plus “bridge”)—began operation of its Athabasca Pipeline, which connected the controversial tar sands deposits of northeastern Alberta to its main oil transportation system. By this time Enbridge was also heavily involved in natural gas pipelines.
Environmental and Safety Record
Even before the Michigan accident, Enbridge’s safety record was far from unblemished. Here are some of the more significant spills and other environmental problems since the early 2000s.
In January 2001 a seam failure on a pipeline near Enbridge’s Hardisty Terminal in Alberta spilled more than 1 million gallons of oil.
In July 2002 a 34-inch-diameter pipeline owned by its affiliate Enbridge Energy Partners ruptured in northern Minnesota, contaminating five acres of wetland with about 250,000 gallons of crude oil.
In January 2003 about 189,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the Nemadji River from the Enbridge Energy Terminal in Superior, Wisconsin. Fortunately, the river was frozen at the time, so damage to the waterway was limited.
In 2004 the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) proposed a fine of $11,500 against Enbridge Energy for safety violations found during inspections of pipelines in Illinois, Indiana and Michigan. The penalty was later reduced to $5,000. In a parallel case involving Enbridge Pipelines operations in Minnesota, an initial penalty of $30,000 was revised to $25,000.
In January 2007 an Enbridge pipeline in Wisconsin spilled more than 50,000 gallons of crude oil onto a farmer’s field in Clark County. The following month another Enbridge spill in Wisconsin released 176,000 gallons of crude in Rusk County.
In November 2007 two workers were killed in an explosion that occurred at an Enbridge pipeline in Clearbrook, Minnesota. The PHMSA later fined the company $2.4 million for safety violations connected to the incident.
In 2008 the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources charged Enbridge Energy with more than 100 environmental violations relating to the construction of a 320-mile pipeline across much of the state. The agency said that Enbridge workers illegally cleared and disrupted wooded wetlands and were responsible for other actions that resulted in discharging sediment into waterways. In January 2009 the company settled the charges by agreeing to pay $1.1 million in penalties.
In 2009 the PHMSA fined Enbridge Pipelines LLC-North Dakota $105,000 for a 2007 accident that released more than 9,000 gallons of crude oil.
In March 2010 the PHMSA proposed a fine of $28,800 against Enbridge Pipelines LLC for safety violations in Oklahoma.
The huge Michigan spill occurred in July 2010 when an Enbridge pipeline in Michigan ruptured, sending more than 800,000 gallons of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River, a major state waterway that flows into Lake Michigan. Within a couple of days, the spill stretched for some 35 miles. The incident occurred only months after the company was warned that it was not properly monitoring corrosion on the pipeline.
A few weeks after the accident, two members of Congress asked Attorney General Eric Holder to look into allegations that Enbridge was pressuring Michigan residents affected by the spill to waive their right to sue the company in exchange for temporary housing, air purifiers and other immediate needs.
The PHMSA later imposed a record civil penalty of $3.7 million against Enbridge Energy, which it said exhibited a “lack of a safety culture.” This was echoed in the findings of the National Transportation Safety Board, which determined that it was not until 17 hours after the spill started that Enbridge began to take steps to address the problem. The NTSB chair was quoted in an agency press release as saying: "This investigation identified a complete breakdown of safety at Enbridge. Their employees performed like Keystone Kops and failed to recognize their pipeline had ruptured and continued to pump crude into the environment."
While the controversy over the Michigan accident was still active, Enbridge experienced another spill at one of its pipelines in Romeoville, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.
The Michigan and Illinois accidents brought a spate of bad publicity for Enbridge, including a Christian Science Monitor piece that referred to the company’s “tarnished reputation” and cited data showing that over the previous decade Enbridge had been responsible for more than 600 spills. A profile of the company by the Polaris Institute put the number even higher—more than 800 spills between 1999 and 2010 in which some 6.8 million gallons of oil were spilled in the U.S. and Canada.
In December 2011 a Canadian judge fined Enbridge C$875,000 for safety violations linked to a 2003 natural gas pipeline explosion in Toronto that killed seven people.
In July 2012, less than a month after the publication of the damning National Transportation Safety Board report on the Michigan accident, an Enbridge pipeline in Wisconsin ruptured and spilled some 50,000 gallons of oil. One member of the U.S. Congress responded by saying: “Enbridge is fast becoming to the Midwest what BP was to the Gulf of Mexico.” PHMSA told the company not to reopen the pipeline until the agency had approved a plan for corrective action.
Enbridge’s problems related to the Michigan incident are far from over. In March 2013 the U.S. EPA ordered the company to perform additional dredging to remove oil from the Kalamazoo River, a process that Enbridge’s U.S. affiliate estimated could bring its total cleanup bill to nearly $1 billion.
Apart from its safety record, Enbridge is targeted by environmentalists for its role in transporting crude oil from the controversial tar sand operations of northeastern Alberta, which are regarded as one of the largest contributors to global warming as well as a major source of air and water pollution and forest destruction. Enbridge’s predecessor companies had some involvement in the tar sands as early as the 1970s. That role expanded greatly in the late 1990s, when Enbridge completed construction of an $800 million expansion of its pipeline system to bring tar sands oil to Eastern Canada and the U.S. Midwest.
In recent years Enbridge has spent billions of dollars to expand its oil pipeline capacity, much of it dedicated to the tar sands industry. It is now proceeding with its Northern Gateway Project, which involves the construction of parallel pipelines from the Alberta tar sands region to the port of Kitimat on the Pacific shore of British Columbia.
Enbridge was a target of human rights and other campaigners concerned about its role in the OCENSA pipeline in Colombia, where there were reports of environmental damage, displacement of indigenous communities and violence against union activists. Enbridge sold off its interest in OCENSA in 2009.
Late Fees Controversy
In 1994 a class action lawsuit was filed against Enbridge’s natural gas operation in Ontario, alleging that it was imposing usurious late fees on customers. After the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, Enbridge settled the case for C$22 million. But it then got permission from the Ontario Energy Board to pass that cost back on to its customers.
Other Information Sources
Violation Tracker summary page
Watchdog Group and Campaigns
Beyond Oil Campaign
Key Books and Reports
Big Oil’s Oily Grasp: The Making of Canada as a Petro-State and How Oil Money is Corrupting Canadian Politics (Polaris Institute, December 2012).
Dirty Oil: How the Tar Sands are Fueling the Global Climate Crisis (Greenpeace Canada, September 2009).
Enbridge Incorporated Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Rupture and Release; Marshall, Michigan, July 25, 2010 (National Transportation Safety Board Accident Report NTSB/PAR-12/01, July 10, 2012).
Importing Disaster: The Anatomy of Enbridge’s Once and Future Oil Spills (National Wildlife Federation, July 2012).
Opening the Door to Oilsands Expansion: the Hidden Environmental Impacts of the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline (Pembina Institute, January 2010).
Out on the Tar Sands Mainline: Mapping Enbridge’s Web of Pipelines (Polaris Institute, May 2010; partially updated May 2012).
Pipelines and Salmon in Northern British Columbia (Pembina Institute, October 2009).
Note: This page draws from a corporate profile originally prepared by the author for the Crocodyl website in July 2010.
Last updated April 11, 2013.