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'We could get by' — U.P. considers alternatives to Line 5 propane

A man points at a stove.
Kaye LaFond
Interlochen Public Radio
James Ball of Rapid River points to the pellet stove he had installed after a propane shortage scare one winter.

Tribal nations, Michigan’s governor and environmental groups are all calling for a shutdown of Line 5: the pipeline that carries oil underneath the Straits of Mackinac.

They say the pipeline, which is 60-plus years old, poses too great a risk of rupturing.

The pipeline doesn’t just carry oil — its liquid mix includes propane that is delivered to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. So, what would happen to U.P. households using propane if Line 5 shut down?

Keeping warm

James Ball makes his way through multiple feet of snow in his backyard to check the gauge on his propane tank. His home in Rapid River, Michigan has had propane heat for as long as he’s lived there.

“I'm at 50 percent,” he says. “So I'll maybe call next week or in two weeks, and set up a time for them to come out and fill it up.”

The majority of households in the Upper Peninsula heat their homes with natural gas, but it’s often not available in rural areas, like where Ball lives. About 18 percent of U.P. households heat primarily with propane.

Some of those are summer cottages or hunting camps, but many are not. It isn’t unheard of for a family to spend $2,000 filling their propane tanks over a winter.

Ball says one winter a few years ago, there was a propane shortage in the U.P. Many states in the Midwest declared propane emergencies in the winter of 2013-14.

Farmers needed a lot of propane for crop drying during the harvest season of 2013. There were also infrastructure issues, and it was just a really cold winter.

“When I called to order propane, they said that there was a possibility that it would not be available by the time that my tank ran out,” says Ball.

It concerned him so much that now, he only uses propane as a last resort. He put a wood pellet stove in his basement, and he also has a standard wood stove in his living room.

The bags of pellets weigh 40 pounds each, and he has to haul them to the basement. Ball is worried about how that will work for him as he gets older.

“There'll come a time when I'll no longer be able to cut wood,” he says. “There's costs. Pellets are fairly expensive. You have to transport those and haul them in.”

He might have to rely on propane again, and he’s concerned about anything that might change its price. That includes a possible shutdown of Enbridge’s Line 5, which delivers propane to a facility just a few miles from his house.

It’s complicated

It’s not easy to tell how reliant the U.P. is on Line 5’s propane.

Most of what’s in the pipeline — a mixture of light and synthetic crude oil and other liquids — flows east, right through the Upper Peninsula. Then it goes south under the Straits of Mackinac, (it temporarily splits into two pipelines for its underwater traverse), through the Lower Peninsula and ultimately to Canada.

However, in Rapid River, a relatively small amount of propane is extracted from the pipeline and sold to retailers.

Enbridge claims that small amount meets 65 percent of the Upper Peninsula’s propane demands. The environmental nonprofit FLOW (For Love of Water) has said it’s more like 35 to 50 percent.

Unfortunately, propane is an unregulated fuel, so there’s a lack of publicly available information.

Either way, propane that doesn’t go to the U.P. by pipeline gets there by rail and truck. Warren Wilczewski with the U.S. Energy Information Administration says there’s a hard and fast rule for transporting propane.

“Rail and truck are significantly more expensive than pipe,” he says.

Simple enough — but even professionals have a hard time predicting what exactly that will mean in the case of a Line 5 closure.

Analyses conducted on behalf of the state of Michigan and the National Wildlife Federation estimate that propane prices could go up anywhere from 5 to 38 cents a gallon without Line 5.

The average Michigan family heating with propane uses a little over 1,000 gallons per year — so that could mean an extra $50, or as much as $380 per year.

The analyses assume propane can be brought in by truck or rail from Superior, Wisconsin, where Line 5 currently begins. There, it splits off from Enbridge’s larger network of pipelines, called the Lakehead system.

However, Enbridge only sends propane through its system, to Superior, so it can go through Line 5. Wilczewski says without Line 5, there’s no economic reason for propane to end up there in the first place.

“In all likelihood, that propane would never flow,” he says. “It's not like there is capacity on the rest of the Lakehead system. So, if you shut down one part of the system, then the capacity is reduced throughout the system.”

That means the lower ends of the cost increase estimates may be moot.

A matter of convenience

There was a time when the U.P. filled its propane tanks without deliveries from Line 5.

Guy Bowman is the former owner of Bowman Gas, a propane retailer serving the Upper Peninsula. He retired last year.

He says before 1996, when Line 5 began delivering propane to Rapid River, the U.P. did just fine, but Rapid River made things more convenient.

“It's basically like the new grocery store coming to town,” says Bowman. “Everybody goes to the new grocery store because it's handy, and you forget about the little places you used to go, and they close up because you're going to the big store. Well, that’s what happened here.”

Bowman Gas is now owned by Bowman’s children, Stephanie and Kristopher. They get about half their propane from Line 5, and the other half from rail.

Bowman says some propane retailers have come to rely on Line 5 completely, and infrastructure for rail and trucking has deteriorated as a result.

“Everybody didn't worry about taking care of our infrastructure for rail, taking care of our trucks,” he says. “We didn't need the trucks to go long haul anymore, so that kind of got rid of that, because this was so handy.”

Bowman says doesn’t want to lose Line 5, but he thinks the Upper Peninsula could manage as long as there was time to plan.

“The infrastructure's gotta be built back up again to do without it,” says Bowman. “With the way trucking is nowadays, and as reliable as rail is nowadays, I mean, we could get by. It wouldn't be, I guess I would say fun.”

A backup plan

If Line 5 had to be shut down quickly, like in the case of an oil spill, the impacts could be more serious.

To help mitigate this risk, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer created the U.P. Energy Task Force.

One of their tasks is to come up with a propane plan for the U.P. in the case of a Line 5 shutdown. They’re supposed to produce a report by March of 2020.

Task force member Tonya Swenor says they’re currently trying to get to the bottom of a lot of conflicting information.

She works with the Superior Watershed Partnership in Marquette, which has programs that help people use less propane. Personally, she thinks that’s the best option to help offset any costs from a Line 5 closure.

“When people learn how to conserve energy, they're gonna be saving money and they're gonna consume less, so that's gonna bring their bill cost down,” says Swenor.

An important part of the equation is propane storage — some say the U.P. could use more of it. Storage helps make truck or rail more economical, and it guards against shortages, although it’s not a replacement for other infrastructure.

The task force is also learning about ways to get people off propane — like heat pumps, or electrification and solar panels.

“Sometimes there are options to convert to other energy sources, but there's costs involved with that,” says Swenor. “So they may need assistance doing that. It's just gonna depend on where they're located.”

The Superior Watershed Partnership is doing free solar installations for low-income families. “This year we'll be putting in 10 units,” says Swenor. “That's gonna help people offset their energy costs significantly.”

Swenor knows that propane cost is a hardship for many households. Her organization has helped 1,300 families pay their propane bills since 2013.

Despite this, she thinks the U.P. will find a way to make things work, regardless of what happens with Line 5.

Kaye LaFond
Kaye is an alumnus of Michigan Tech's environmental engineering program. She got her start making maps for the Traverse City-Based water news organization Circle of Blue, and, since then, she's been pretty devoted to science communication and data visualization.