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While not by rail, oil does move through Bemidji; Lakehead pipeline system carries millions of barrels daily

BEMIDJI — Two million barrels of crude oil go right past Bemidji every day — just not by rail.

When train cars carrying Bakken crude reach Grand Forks, N.D., they’re diverted south toward Fargo instead of following the BNSF track through Bemidji on to the Twin Ports. No oil trains go through Bemidji on a regular basis, according to MNDOT officials.

Instead, a series of underground pipelines that run just south of the city roughly parallel to Highway 2 carry about 13 percent of all U.S. petroleum imports. Enbridge Energy LP’s Lakehead Pipeline System pumps crude oil originating in Canada and the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota through a terminal station in Clearbrook, Minn., to refineries in the Midwest and beyond. The average amount of oil pumped daily through Lakehead is about 2.5 times the total daily amount shipped by rail from the Williston Basin, which includes oil in parts of North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana. The planned Sandpiper line will add still 225,000 more barrels a day to the Lakehead system.

The first pipeline in the system was completed in 1950. In the region that includes the stretch of pipelines and pump stations from Clearbrook to Superior, Wis., Enbridge employs more than 600 people for regular operations and project work. Enbridge Energy LP is a subsidiary of Canadian company Enbridge Inc., which employs 10,000 people in Canada and the U.S.

Enbridge Inc.’s entire liquids pipeline system contributed $726 million in earnings to the company’s overall bottom line in 2012.

Spills, fires

A 2007 pipeline fire near the Clearbrook pump station killed two workers and resulted in Enbridge paying a $2.4 million fine.

There have been at least three pipeline ruptures near Bemidji: two minor leaks in 1998 and 2006 and one massive spill in 1979 near Pinewood that released more than 10,00 barrels of crude oil. The spill was so unique that rather than clean all of it up Enbridge, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the U.S. Geological Survey left about 25 percent remaining in the soil so it could be studied. To this day, the “National Crude Oil Spill Fate and Natural Attenuation Research Site” attracts research efforts from across the country from those hoping to learn more about oil retention in soil. Enbridge provides funds for the research.

More recent ruptures on the Lakehead system include a 2012 line break near Grand March, Wis., that spilled an estimated 1,200 barrels of crude oil and a 2010 spill in Marshall, Mich. that put approximately 1 million gallons of oil into Talmadge Creek and contaminated up to 38 miles of the Kalamazoo River. The spill prompted U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., to call for a federal investigation of the incident and of Enbridge. Twenty-four safety violations were found by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Transportation. PHMSA stuck Enbridge with a $3.7 million dollar fine, the largest it’s ever issued for pipeline safety violations. Since those two ruptures, Enbridge has spent more than $14 million in changes and repairs to the system itself and $7.26 million to change its operating procedures and testing.

Zach Kayser
Zach Kayser covers local government and city issues for the Pioneer. He previously worked for the Wadena Pioneer Journal, and is an alumni of the University of Minnesota, Morris. 
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