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Of oil pipelines, bacteria's self-defenses, and a 'tree that changed human history'

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A remarkable work of long-form newspaper journalism turned up this month in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, where environmental reporter Dan Egan explains how obstruction of various pipeline projects in the West inevitably means that more will be built in the Great Lakes region — in some cases perilously close to the lakes themselves.

Like water, Egan observes, oil pipelines follow the path of least resistance, “and for the last two decades that path has increasingly run straight toward the Great Lakes — and through the hearts of Wisconsin and Michigan.” Although Transcanada’s Keystone XL dominated the headlines until last year, Egan focuses on the web woven by its key competitor:

There is nothing on the continent like this ever-expanding pipeline network, owned by Canada’s Enbridge Inc. and its subsidiaries, and not just because it runs to the shores of the Great Lakes, a drinking water source for some 40 million people. ... 

The system’s current capacity is equal to roughly 20% of the nation’s total oil imports. Enbridge also has plans for a new thousand-mile pipeline from Alberta to Superior that would add another 370,000 barrels per day to that flow, bringing the capacity for some 3 million barrels of oil to flow into Wisconsin each day.

That is more than all the oil the United States imports on an average daily basis from Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Mexico — combined.

Not on its face a necessarily bad thing, except Egan’s reporting establishes that:

Enbridge routinely builds its network in small sections, with low initial transport volumes, then slowly ratchets these upward not by enlarging the pipe but by raising pressures — practices that make it hard for regulators to clearly see the end results, or track the risks.

When Enbridge’s newest pipeline running through Wisconsin opened in 2009, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources evaluated it as a line that would carry 400,000 barrels per day. That number grew to 560,000 barrels per day by 2014. It will soon be carrying 1.2 million barrels per day. …

When Enbridge’s first line through Wisconsin, Line 6A, opened in 1968, it had a capacity of roughly 300,000 barrels. Today it has a capacity of nearly 700,000 barrels. The line itself never got larger. The volume boost was achieved largely by cranking up pressure on a steel tube that is today nearly 50 years old.

Leaks are numerous and occasionally huge, like the 2010 spill from Line 6B near the Kalamazoo River that became the largest on land in U.S. history. So there are reasons to question Enbridge’s assurances about the adequacy of its safety systems and cleanup capabilities.

The Wisconsin DNR issued a report in early 2016 that revealed Enbridge had 85 spills in Wisconsin in the previous decade. Most were rated as “very small to small” — classified as less than 2,100 gallons. Six were classified as “substantive,” up to 21,000 gallons. Five were categorized as “large” — up to 210,000 gallons.

Continent-wide, Enbridge reported a stellar accident record in 2015, delivering 2.8 billion barrels of oil and spilling a scant 15 barrels along its pipeline right-of-way or private properties. But over the prior decade, the company averaged more than 70 spills per year.

As for the million-gallon Kalamazoo spill, with its billion-dollar cleanup cost, Egan notes that (a) the spill originated in cracks that had been detected five years earlier but left unrepaired, (b) Enbridge employees failed to understand the alarm signals they were hearing until the oil had been leaking for 17 hours, and (c) the company did not carry enough insurance to pay the cleanup costs.

Some of the oldest pipe in Enbridge’s system is at the worst possible location for a leak — the Straits of Mackinac, where lakes Michigan and Huron come together.  

This crossing, which consists 63-year-old pipe lying on the lakebed — not even buried, as the builders of the Dakota Access Pipeline proposed to do at Lake Oahe — got considerable attention back in 2014 thanks to computer modeling of what a spill might mean. The modeling took into account fierce currents that move in all directions and shift frequently, thanks to surface winds that tip over trailer trucks on the Mackinac Bridge (and once pitched a small car over the rail and into the water).

This has moved more than 60 Michigan cities to call on Enbridge to replace, relocate or restrict operation of the crossing, which the company dismisses as fearmongering over equipment that is perfectly safe and inspected continuously.

But Egan details a decades-long fight between regulators and Enbridge over how to shore up an initially unsupported pipeline that lies on unstable lakebed, with the company first denying that any supports were needed, then adding a variety of fixes — from “grout bags” that are tucked underneath to soak up water and harden like concrete to, more recently, steel braces.

Earlier this year, the company, under pressure from Michigan politicians to be more transparent, released data showing that in places the 7/8-inch pipe is actually only about two-thirds that thick. This is something Enbridge attributes not to corrosion but to how the pipe was constructed. The company said these thin spots in no way compromise the safety of the pipe, and in June it released an analysis from an outside firm (using Enbridge data) that affirmed the company’s position that the pipeline remains in excellent shape.

I suppose I ought to give a heads-up here that Egan does not discuss recent history with the Sandpiper and other projects in Minnesota, being focused principally on Wisconsin and Michigan, but of course the same factors apply here. Also, that his is a long project, some 20,000 words in two parts plus a cool intro with interactive graphical wizardry.

But in my admiring opinion, not only as a reader but as a guy whose past life included a decade of managing projects of this scale at the Strib, it’s a quick-moving narrative you’ll find well worth your time.

* * *

Not so quick a read, unless you happen to be a molecular biologist, but nonetheless interesting and important is Heidi Ledford’s explanatory piece in the journal Nature about CRISPR-Cas, the basis of a developing technology that makes genetic editing far  quicker and simpler than past methods.

Ledford takes us through the history of CRISPR-Cas discoveries since 1992, when a Spanish researcher looking at microbial immune systems “noticed 14 unusual DNA sequences, each 30 bases long. They read roughly the same backwards and forwards, and they repeated every 35 bases or so.”

These “clustered, regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” enable the most primitive life forms we know to be extraordinarily resistant to viral infection, in situations of incomprehensible threat.

Prokaryotes — bacteria and less-well-known single-celled organisms called archaea, many of which live in extreme environments — face a constant onslaught of genetic invaders. Viruses outnumber prokaryotes by ten to one and are said to kill half of the world's bacteria every two days.

Prokaryotes also swap scraps of DNA called plasmids, which can be parasitic — draining resources from their host and forcing it to self-destruct if it tries to expel its molecular hitch-hiker. It seems as if nowhere is safe: from soil to sea to the most inhospitable places on the planet, genetic invaders are present.

Despite intensive research in the intervening years — plus a highly controversial biotechnology revolution they’re driving — five big mysteries about CRISPR-Cas remain:  Where did it come from? How does it work? What else might it be doing? Why do only some microbes use it? How many flavors of it exist?

* * *

Photo by Ben Meador
A ficus in Ho Chi Minh City

Toward the other end of the taxonomy of life forms we have a portrait from the BBC’s Earth series of “The tree that changed human history,” an appraisal of the 750-species Ficus genus by Mike Shanahan. A few choice excerpts:

Most flowering plants display their blooms for all to see, but the Ficus species hide them away inside their hollow figs. And while most plants bury their roots underground, the strangler figs and their kin show them off.

The strangler figs are awesome plants that grow from seeds dropped high on other trees by passing birds and mammals. By starting out high in the forest canopy instead of on its gloomy floor, the strangler seedlings get the light they need to grow with vigour. As they do, they send down aerial roots that become thick and woody, encasing their host trees in a living mesh. They can even smother and kill giant trees, growing into colossal forms.

High-energy figs may have helped our ancestors to develop bigger brains. There is also a theory that suggests our hands evolved as tools for assessing which figs are soft, and therefore sweet and rich in energy. While the first humans benefitted from fig biology, their descendants mastered it. Ficus species are among the first plants people domesticated, several thousand years ago.

As it happens, the same day I was reading Shanahan’s piece I got an emailed snapshot from my son, traveling in Vietnam — a huge ficus of the type known as banyan in Ho Chi Minh City. Cool tree, he said, echoing Shanahan's players from the Buddha to Alexander the Great to Pliny to Nebuchadnezzar.

* * *

Now back to pipelines, and an interesting take by Tay Wiles for High Country News about how the protests at Cannon Ball, North Dakota, have energized Indians and allied activists across the country, from Florida to Alaska to San Francisco.

Standing Rock, in this view, “was more of a beginning than an end. It was both a potent symbol for this American moment, and the start of something bigger.”

Companies have scraped Navajo earth for coal since the 1960s — funding the tribal government, which has been largely pro-extraction, and dividing local communities over its environmental costs and economic benefits. Uranium mining began here after World War II and tapered off in the 1980s, leaving radioactive drinking water and cancer in the bodies of mine workers. Webs of roads in the San Juan Basin mark almost a century of enthusiastic oil and gas drilling.

In 2014, a company called Saddle Butte San Juan Midstream proposed a 148-mile-long pipeline to transport crude oil. The Piñon Pipeline would have skirted Chaco Culture National Historical Park, the remains of an ancestral Puebloan society that is also part of the Diné spiritual origin story. So it was that in 2016 Piñon earned the nickname “New Mexico’s DAPL.”

Opponents scored a victory this December when the company withdrew its application, citing low oil prices. But other fights in Navajo ancestral ­territory have increased in intensity even as Standing Rock has cooled down. One of the hottest conflicts now centers on current and proposed fracking in the landscape surrounding Chaco Canyon.

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