Enbridge is building and upgrading pump stations along line 61, which would triple the pipeline's capacity; the Dane County station is located in Waterloo.
A Dane County committee will hear a proposal next month on whether to allow a tar sands pipeline to triple its capacity -- exceeding the size of the controversial Keystone pipeline.
The pipeline in question, owned by Enbridge, is called line 61. It cuts through the northeast corner of Dane County near Waterloo and currently has a capacity to move 400,000 barrels of tar sand oil a day.
Because the unrefined tar sand is a sludge, it requires numerous pumping stations along the line. One of these is located in Dane County, also near Waterloo.
"The stuff they're moving is not conventional oil," says Peter Anderson, an activist with 350 Madison, a group raising awareness about climate change. "They call it tar sands for a reason. When it's extracted from the ground, it's the consistency of asphalt. To make it move through a pipeline, they have to do special stuff to it.... They add diluents and keep it heated."
Enbridge proposes to increase the capacity of the line to 1.2 million barrels of oil a day -- or more than 50 million gallons. While this doesn't require a larger pipe, the company needs to upgrade its pumping stations.
If the expansion is granted, the line would be a third larger than the Keystone Pipeline.
Enbridge has a record of spills. The Polaris Institute reported (PDF) in May 2010 that Enbridge had 804 spills between 1999 and 2010, releasing 161,475 barrels of crude oil.
In July 2010, one of the company's lines near Marshall, Mich., burst, spilling at least 843,000 gallons of crude oil, and polluting 35 miles of the Kalamazoo River.
The company kept pumping oil through the line for 17 hours after the pipe burst. Damage from the accident was at least $767 million, although other estimates have it topping $1 billion. It's considered the largest inland oil spill in the country.
Becky Haase, a spokesperson for Enbridge, says that safety is a priority for the company. She says in the past couple of years it has invested $4.4 billion in improving the company's lines. Some of that money was spent on a new system, which she compares to an MRI, to inspect pipelines "from the inside out."
"It's really important to keep communities safe all along our pipelines," she says.
Line 61, which runs from Canada through Wisconsin, goes to a refinery in the Chicago region, Haase says.
"We don't refine oil, we're like a FedEx delivery system," she says. "The majority of oil we transport ends up in the Chicago area." She adds that about half of the refined oil used in Wisconsin is supplied by Enbridge.
But activists are not reassured. Mary Beth Elliott, who is involved with 350 Madison, says that if line 61 is expanded, it will be pumping up to 50 million gallons of crude oil a day. "If there were a full rupture, just imagine what you'd get in one hour," says Elliott.
An hour leak would spill 2 million gallons of crude oil, more than double what Michigan released in 17 hours.
The activists are not asking Dane County to stop the project, something they don't believe the county has the power to do. Rather, they want officials to require the company be insured in case of an accident.
"We should require that if they're going to do this, they should have some insurance," says Anderson.
Dane County's Zoning & Land Regulation Committee will look at Enbridge's conditional use permit at its Jan. 13 meeting. Other Wisconsin counties that the line passes through have already approved the line's expansion, Anderson says. Originally, it was thought that county zoning laws didn't apply to oil pipelines, but Anderson discovered only gas lines are exempt. This prompted Dane County to take a closer look.
Activists claim the company has misrepresented the types of insurance it carries for its line, saying it has only "general casualty insurance."
Says 350 Madison's Mary Beth Elliott: "It probably just covers damage to their pipeline."
Anderson says that these types of policies also explicitly exclude covering disasters. "All those casualty policies have exclusions for pollution damage," he says. "[The policies] say we don't cover that."
Moreover, the activists say that Enbridge is set up as a "master limited partnership," with all its profits paid out to partners each year. This means the company doesn't have cash reserves an injured party could go after in case of a major accident.
So they're asking Dane County to require both accident insurance and to name a party who will be responsible in case of an accident.
"The question is whether a company with a terrible record, equivalent to drunken driving, should be properly insured," Anderson says.
He notes that if the line is safe, as the company claims, an insurance company will back it up with an affordable policy. "That will say whether [Enbridge] is telling the truth," he says. "The insurance metric is a truth meter."
County Supv. Mary Kolar, a Zoning & Land Regulation Committee member, says the panel has questions about how the county will be protected in case of an accident.
"The number one thing we're asking for, potentially asking for, is a surety bond, so that if there is a spill there would be enough money to pay for the clean-up," Kolar says.
Haase is noncommittal about whether this is something Enbridge is open to providing, saying "at this point, it's still in negotiation."
"Everybody wants our pipelines to be safe," she adds.
In addition to the potential risk of an oil spill, Anderson says he's not crazy about the use of tar sands oil.
"Tar sands have three times the emissions of conventional fuel," he says.
But activists say that's well beyond the purview of Dane County. If the company gets insurance, they have no beef with Dane County allowing the expansion.
Says Elliott: "Our plan is not to stop the pipeline; our plan is to make sure it's safe."
[Editor's note: This story is updated to reflect that the Dane County Zoning & Land Regulation Committee hearing on the pipeline has been postponed until Jan. 13.]