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'Invisible River of Oil' Brings Millions of Barrels Through Wisconsin Everyday

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Sections of an oil pipeline waiting to be installed near Morden, Manitoba.

The proposed Dakota Access oil pipeline project and the protests against it got a lot of international media attention for what its backers said it would do, and what opponents feared it would do.

"What's flowing into Superior right now... it's more than 2.5 million barrels and the company that owns these pipelines is hoping to add another line that will mean an additional 370,000 barrels."

But this week in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Great Lakes reporter Dan Egan explains that there are not one, but several pipelines that carry oil under, over and through Wisconsin and the Great Lakes that receive very little attention. The series is called “Oil and Water," and the second part comes out this week. 

Wisconsin is home to a system of oil pipelines largely owned and operated by Enbridge, an energy delivery company based in Canada. Egan has dubbed the pipeline system the "invisible river of oil," and says the network is surprisingly large. 

"I believe the Dakota Access Pipeline is going to carry initially, 475,000 barrels a day, and what's flowing into Superior right now... it's more than 2.5 million barrels and the company that owns these pipelines is hoping to add another line that will mean an additional 370,000 barrels," says Egan. "So we're talking almost 3 million barrels of oil... flowing into Wisconsin every day. And for a little perspective, that's 20% of the U.S. oil imports."

"Over the years the system has been expanded incrementally, in a manner that makes it kind of difficult to get the big picture."

Most of the oil doesn't stay in Wisconsin. It's moved on to the next place to be processed at out-of-state refineries. "A small portion of this oil is refined up in Superior, but the rest out of state, and increasingly there's a likelihood that it'll be going out of the country as well," Egan explains. 

So if there's so much oil running through the state, why haven't we heard more about it?

"Some of these pipelines have been in the ground for more than a half century, and they were laid at a time when there wasn't this sensitivity to pipelines and to the Canadian tar sands oil," he explains. "Over the years, the system has been expanded incrementally, in a manner that makes it kind of difficult to get the big picture." 

"In the Great Lakes, the pipelines run near the shores of the Great Lakes and in some cases, there's two pipes that lie on the bottom of the Great Lakes exposed. There's no tunneling into the lake bottom, so if there's a leak it goes straight into the water."

In North Dakota, much of the protesting has been over the vulnerability of the Missouri River as the main water source for millions of people. While the Dakota Access Pipeline would be laid as deep as 90 feet beneath the river bed, in Wisconsin some pipelines share space with the water itself.

"In the Great Lakes, the pipelines run near the shores of the Great Lakes and in some cases, there's two pipes that lie on the bottom of the Great Lakes exposed. There's no tunneling into the lake bottom, so if there's a leak it goes straight into the water," says Egan. 

This has caused some problems in the past. "There's a history of a lot of leaks in Wisconsin and in the Great Lakes basin," Egan admits. Some may remember the large spill in Kalamazoo, Michigan back in 2010. Around a million gallons of tar sands oil leaked into the Kalamazoo River, which flows into Lake Michigan.

While Wisconsin hasn't had a single leak quite that large, according to Egan, cumulative spills add up to "tens of thousands of gallons."

"Pipelines leak," he says. Now, the company that owns these pipelines is looking to expand. "Enbridge is currently mulling plans for another big pipe to run through Wisconsin. It could be as big as 42 inches in diameter, which is 3 and a half feet in diameter, and could carry up to 1.2 million barrels of oil a day. That's a lot of oil." 

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Joy Powers joined WUWM January 2016 as producer for Lake Effect. Most recently, she was a director and producer for The Afternoon Shift, on WBEZ-fm, Chicago Public Radio.