Michigan needs ‘Plan B’ for propane supply

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In the winter months, Michigan runs on propane.

We have the highest rate of residential propane consumption in the U.S., with much of that usage coming from residents in the northern Lower Peninsula and Upper Peninsula who rely on propane as a primary heating source.

The Enbridge Line 5 pipeline currently delivers more than half of Michigan’s propane supply, but maintenance requirements and a proposed tunnel project to address environmental concerns over the crude oil it transports under the Straits of Mackinac may lead to service outages in the coming years.

Even the slightest hiccup to our propane supply chain could lead to shortages and price hikes for consumers. This isn’t a hypothetical scenario, either. It happened in 2014 when a confluence of environmental factors increased propane usage in the Midwest and put supply and demand into a state of flux. Now, every year as winter approaches, concerns about propane supply materialize throughout Michigan and those who rely on it to survive.

At the minimum, a dependable “Plan B” propane-distribution infrastructure is needed in Michigan — one that eliminates the need for propane suppliers to turn to out-of-state markets and long-distance propane transport via truck or rail.

Remarkably, the perfect solution for Michigan’s propane-distribution conundrum may already exist in the form of an idle, steel-coated, 225-mile-long pipeline constructed by Shell Oil Company in 1973.

Running from Michigan’s largest propane storage facility in Marysville — about an hour northeast of Detroit — to the pipeline’s northwestern terminal in Kalkaska, the pipeline has a perfect safety record and is capable of transporting 500,000 gallons per day to propane-dependent areas of the state. Converting the pipeline into a statewide propane artery will involve reversing its flow from south to north and conducting inspection and maintenance procedures with state-of-the-art technology.

The beauty of this project, dubbed the Michigan Express Pipeline, is in its simplicity — as well as its potential to go above and beyond the sheer need for an alternative propane delivery solution in Michigan. Because it repurposes an existing infrastructural asset, the project represents significant logistical and environmental benefits.

Since the Michigan Express Pipeline does not involve costly or complicated construction, it will greatly minimize environmental impact during the development phase compared to construction of a brand-new pipeline. That logistical simplicity also means that the pipeline can be operational in less than a year, whereas construction and safety inspections for a new pipeline of its length would take years to complete.

The environmental benefits continue with the pipeline’s role of transporting propane and propane only. Propane is a clean energy source as designated by the 1990 Clean Air Act, and any leak or spillage would not be harmful to the soil, air, or water. Propane converts to a non-toxic vapor as soon as it encounters air, and its high combustion temperature provides additional safety benefits.

Ultimately, the Michigan Express Pipeline is a reminder that the success of the clean energy revolution will require far more than sustainable and renewable fuel sources. It will require an infrastructure that is equally eco-friendly. From processing to storage to transportation, the backbone of the clean energy industry will need to reduce environmental harm at every step of the supply chain. By “recycling” an existing pipeline that has been dormant for years, Michigan can address high statewide demand for clean energy quickly, safely and with minimal impact on the environment.

Niel Rootare is the founder, president and chief executive officer of Silver Wolf Midstream LLC, an energy and renewable infrastructure company focused on the acquisitions and operation of projects throughout the U.S. Rootare has more than 30 years of energy industry leadership experience across multiple sectors from natural gas marketing and producer services to senior leadership of midstream pipelines, gathering and infrastructure development.

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