CLEARBROOK -- Just a few hundred yards southeast of the small town of Clearbrook stands a grouping of huge, white, silo-like structures.
Silos, though, wouldn't draw protesters.
This is Enbridge Energy's Clearbrook Terminal, and guards are posted there to protect the facility from demonstrators and other security risks. This is one of the locations where Enbridge's mostly buried system of crude oil pipelines run above ground in Minnesota. One of the pipelines Canada-based Enbridge is on the cusp of building or expanding, the much-touted and much-maligned Line 67, runs through here. Enbridge says the expansion will help relieve the economy and America's dependence on oil from other continents, but the project is opposed by groups such as the Sierra Club and MN 350 because they perceive it as threatening wildlife habitat and furthering climate change. There's also new lines planned to run across Minnesota to accommodate the immense flow of oil from finds in North Dakota and Canada, plans that already have drawn criticism.
This week, the Clearbrook Terminal opened its doors to a Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce Grow Minnesota visit. The tour group got to do something the protesters likely would have coveted: the chance to go deep inside the terminal to see its inner workings.
Arguably, the most noticeable aspect of the facility is the lack of people. As Bill Palmer, terminal supervisor and Bagley native, explained to the tour group, there are only about 15 people regularly employed at the 80-acre terminal facility, a great deal of which is run through automation.
However, human activity buzzed around the facility's eastern fence line where work on Line 67 continues in anticipation of a ruling by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission later this summer on whether the next phase of the project can go through, achieving 800,000 daily barrels of pumping power for Line 67's piece of the network.
At the intersection
The Clearbrook terminal is an oil pipeline intersection, where the oil in Enbridge pipelines coming from the tar sands fields of Canada and the Bakken field in North Dakota is transferred to the 304-mile MinnCan/Koch pipeline system that leads to refineries in the Twin Cities.
Palmer said a key reason the huge white tanks are there is to act as a place to temporarily store the crude oil bound to travel south through MinnCan, so the transfer process doesn't hold up the oil destined to continue east to Superior, Wis. The tanks hold 1.2 million barrels of crude total, and an average of 320,000 barrels per day are pumped south from the Clearbrook Terminal to the beginning of the MinnCan/Koch system, separated from Enbridge property by a narrow gravel road and some fencing.
"Koch like K-O-C-H?" one chamber member asked. The MinnCan pipeline is also referred to as "The Koch Pipeline" because although owned by the Minnesota Pipe Line Co., the line is operated by Wichita, Kan.-based Koch Pipeline Co., or KPL. KPL, in turn, is an indirect subsidiary of Koch Industries, the immense energy company helmed by Charles and David Koch. The multi-billionaire brothers are often decried as symbols of dark money in politics because of their financing activity through conservative groups such as Americans For Prosperity.
The Kochs are just one of many clients that Enbridge transports oil for, however. Called "shippers," companies pay Enbridge to pump dozens of very specific types and volumes of oil through their system. Palmer likened the different proprietary types of oil to different brands of soda -- the Enbridge tanks this Tuesday held mostly a kind called "light sour blend" -- and since different shipments, or "batches," are going through the same pipe a main concern for Enbridge is preventing these brands of oil from accidentally mixing together.
To help keep batches from running into each other, the oil is propelled through the lines at what Enbridge spokesperson Becky Haase described as a "walking pace," where the oil tumbles end over end like a tumbleweed. If Enbridge shot oil straight through the line like a river, Haase said, friction would cause the oil around the edges of the stream against the pipe surface to travel more slowly than oil in the middle of the stream that only rubs up against other oil. Thus, it would be harder to keep different batches separate.
Enbridge can also tell the location of a particular batch of oil based on sensors that measure its density and viscosity.
The pipe itself is checked periodically via a "smart pig," a battery-powered robotic array of sensors that travels through the line, scanning for cracks or weaknesses in between batches. Similar devices have been featured in multiple James Bond movies where humans have used them as vehicles to rocket through pipelines, but Haase said it would be impossible for people to conduct international hijinks on them in real life. Lack of oxygen, high pressure and friction all would make it a bad idea.
"Humans don't really flow well," she quipped.
In addition to periodic smart pig inspections, pipes are also monitored constantly by still more sensors that transmit data to Enbridge's central control facility in Edmonton, Alta. In the event of a problem, the Edmonton center would alert the staff at Clearbrook so they could examine it themselves.
Government regulators also regularly inspect the lines to make sure they're up to par. Officials from the Minnesota Office of Pipeline Safety inspected Enbridge's lines last year and came up with a clean bill of health.
"No deficiencies or discrepancies were noted," their report said.
Despite the safety measures and inspections, the controversy and protests will likely continue at Clearbrook. As Enbridge navigates the metaphorical crossroads of new pipelines stretching across Minnesota, the literal crossroads of Clearbrook will be close to the center of it all.