Enbridge retools following a summer of discontent

2010 was a year of growth, including the $3.7-billion addition of Alberta Clipper

January 01, 2011

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Manzoni Nunns Ruste McMaster Roberts Wuori

Photography by Jason Stang

July 26, 2010, is etched in Stephen Wuori’s memory forever. An ordinary Monday morning was interrupted by word that a pipeline had burst and was spewing oil into a small river in southwest Michigan. Plans and schedules were thrown aside. In a small boardroom, the president of Enbridge Inc.’s liquids pipelines unit met with the company’s chief executive officer, Pat Daniel, and D’Arcy Levesque, vice-president of public affairs.

Images of oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico were still fresh. News stations were already billing the leak on Line 6B as yet another black mark, albeit a smaller one, on the fossil fuel industry. Against this backdrop, the consensus was to get to ground zero of the incident as fast as possible.

The pipeline ruptured near a pump station on the Enbridge’s Lakehead System, a 1,900-kilometer network that shuttles some 280,000 barrels per day of light synthetics, heavy and medium crude oil – much of it from Western Canada – from Griffith, Indiana, to refineries in Sarnia, Ontario. Initial reports were that 19,500 barrels of crude had spilled into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River.

By day’s end, Wuori, Daniel and Levesque traded the firm’s downtown Calgary office for a hotel room in a small town called Marshall, Michigan. “It would have been very hard to appreciate the magnitude of what we were dealing with over a phone line,” says Wuori, 53. “I remember thinking that there was a lot of planning and organizing to do. We literally decided to run home, pack bags and head for Marshall.”

The proactive response from company leaders was classic Enbridge. It was community relations in high gear, the extension of a philosophy that places people on par with profits. Working with local health authorities and the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the firm deployed 150,000 feet (45,000 meters) of spill containment booms in the surrounding waterways.

In the ensuing weeks, more than 2,000 people contributed to the cleanup effort, which was organized with military-like precision. Daily news briefings were held. Two claims centers were opened, one in Marshall and another in nearby Battle Creek. No injuries were reported, but 200-foot (60-meter) buffer zones were cordoned off along the banks of the Kalamazoo River. Water wells were tested. A spill-response website went live.

“All of that happened in a rush,” Wuori says, recalling the frenetic aftermath of the spill, the largest in company history. “The strategy was entirely focused on the most rapid way of responding, containing and cleaning up the oil.”

Remediation work continues. Since July, Enbridge has fielded more than 10,000 calls on a public information hotline, rehabilitated and released more than 2,000 animals into the local ecosystems, and cycled more than 7,000 workers including EPA staff and cleanup contractors through the affected area. The company has also purchased 34 homes from affected residents. Including remediation costs associated with a much smaller pipeline breach elsewhere on the system in September, the cleanup tab by mid-fall reached $85 million.

The spill response grew out of a commitment to communities touched by a vast network of petroleum-related infrastructure. The last two years have been marked by a push to improve co-ordination of investments in small municipalities outside of large urban centers like Edmonton and Calgary.

Regional offices along pipeline rights-of-way have been staffed with Enbridge employees whose sole responsibility is to establish relationships with everybody from local branches of Rotary and Lions’ Clubs to representatives of minor sports associations. “That’s really a thrust right now,” Wuori says, “especially outside of bigger centers; to really co-ordinate what we do in terms of community engagement and community investment, to make sure the Enbridge presence is well understood.”

That presence is growing. In the last year alone, Enbridge turned the valve on a $140-million addition to its North Dakota system, following continued growth in the Bakken oilfield; added the $3.7-billion, 450,000-barrel-per-day Alberta Clipper line; and completed the $2.3-billion Southern Lights project, designed to move some 180,000 barrels per day of bitumen-thinning diluents from Chicago to Alberta’s oil sands.

The successes have not been entirely free of hurdles. Alberta Clipper was a flashpoint among environmentalists, who unsuccessfully fought Enbridge’s application for a U.S. presidential oil import permit. In an August 2009 decision, the U.S. State Department determined the 400-kilometer oil sands conduit to Superior, Wisconsin, “would serve the national interest, in a time of considerable political tension in other major oil-producing regions.”

The verdict recognized that Canada is the largest supplier of oil to American markets. It also underscored the value of hard-nosed facts in winning pipeline approvals. “Your word has to be trusted,” Wuori says, explaining the firm’s approach to regulatory affairs. “You have to have patience, and a great deal of compassion for the opposing point of view, but above all, make sure that the facts are what you provide and leave the rhetoric to others.”

One fact behind his 27-plus years with Enbridge is that pipelines are an essential service like roads, bridges or schools. Wuori speaks from a long line of engineers. His father worked in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. His older brother and an uncle are in the profession too.

When Wuori graduated from Michigan Technological University, civil engineering provided an escape from a life stuck behind a desk. The role was also a way to contribute to a bigger purpose. “There was always this sense that you were working on things that society needs,” he says. He likes to be a contributor. His credentials include a term as board chairman for Alberta’s Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society (STARS). And with 30 years and dozens of projects under his belt, the field has not lost its sheen. “There’s still a thrill in seeing something built well – designed well and built well.”

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