Budget contains ‘a grab bag of anti-conservation policy’

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

Wisconsin’s Republican leadership has enacted a measure that would allow the accident-prone Canadian energy transportation company Enbridge to bury oil pipelines on property anywhere in the state it desires. The property owner’s approval is not required.

The measure was among 67 proposals in the Joint Finance Committee’s wrap-up motion (known as the 999 motion) to the 2015–17 biennial budget approval process. Many of the proposals were both controversial and unrelated to the budget, reflecting a strategy used by both parties for circumventing public attention and debate on hot-button issues. 

The 999 proposals were harshest on environmental issues, according to Wisconsin conservation groups. The Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters described the budget as a whole as “a grab bag of anti-conservation policy.”

Among the worst of the new environmental laws, conservationists said, are those that were designed to benefit Enbridge, the world’s largest transporter of tar sands oil, the most hazardous of all petroleum products to transport. The company has close ties with Wisconsin Republicans. 

The impetus for the new laws is to expedite Enbridge’s plan to expand the volume on Line 61, which crosses the state diagonally from Superior to Flanagan, Illinois — a pipeline that currently conveys half a million barrels of tar sands crude a day. Enbridge wants to triple that volume, which would make Line 61 the highest-volume pipeline in the nation — one-third larger than the Keystone XL.

Line 61 passes under every major waterway in the state, and Enbridge has the Western Hemisphere’s worst record for oil spills — a combination of factors that alarms environmentalists.

According to the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, Enbridge is guilty of more than 100 environmental violations in 14 Wisconsin counties. In 2010, the break of an Enbridge line in Michigan spewed oil for more than 17 hours before Enbridge realized it was leaking. It was the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history, with a clean-up price tag of $1.2 billion. EPA officials struggled three years to get Enbridge to clean up the impacted area, and environmentalists say the work is still incomplete. 

Enbridge’s plan to expand Line 61 had been held up by Dane County, where officials demanded that the company carry $25 million in pollution insurance before they would approve a new pumping station in the county’s northeastern corner. 

But with a proposal included in the 999 motion, Republican leaders enabled Enbridge to circumvent the requirement with a new provision that bans local jurisdictions from requiring insurance on an operator of a hazardous liquid pipeline as long as the company carries comprehensive insurance coverage, according to Elizabeth Ward, conservation programs coordinator for the Sierra Club’s John Muir chapter.

Given the cost of clean-ups, the frequency of Enbridge accidents and the company’s history of reluctance to clean up after itself, Dane County officials fear the company’s current insurance coverage is inadequate.

Seizing land

Another item folded into the 999 motion expands the state’s eminent domain law so that it virtually would allow Enbridge to seize property from any individual and use it for placing a pipeline. Although the Public Service Commission must deem such an action necessary for the public interest, environmentalists said obtaining its permission would be merely a formality in most cases, given that Gov. Scott Walker, who appoints its commissioners, controls the PSC.

Wisconsin Public Radio’s Danielle Kaeding reported that legislative drafting files show that Enbridge had direct involvement in changing the wording of the eminent domain law to include itself. 

“A staffer with Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ office requested Enbridge Energy attorneys speak with drafters on a language change affecting who has power to take private property for public use,” WPR reported.

Enbridge has shown its willingness to exercise eminent domain rights in other states. It recently filed a lawsuit in North Dakota against holdout landowners who refused to give the company permission to use their properties for a pipeline that will convey tar sands oil from North Dakota to Superior, Wisconsin.

Enbridge also has eminent domain rights in Michigan, where in 2012 the company took 70 homeowners in Ingham and Livingston counties to court to force them to relinquish their property for the installation of a new pipeline. The new pipeline replaced the one that ruptured in 2010 and dumped 800,000 gallons of crude oil into a Kalamazoo River tributary near Marshall.

On July 8, the same day the Legislature approved the final budget, demonstrators congregated outside Gov. Walker’s office in Madison to protest what 350 Madison called “a Republican scheme to pay off the Enbridge pipeline company in the state budget bill.” 

Protesters floated a balloon shaped like an octopus next to Walker’s East Wing office. The octopus dropped thousands of dollars in monopoly money “to represent the campaign contributions it expects the governor and Republican legislators to receive for doing the company’s bidding,” according to a news release. 

“Since the politicians are so intent on getting campaign contributions, regardless of the harm it does to the state’s taxpayers and landowners along the line, we thought we’d help speed up getting the pipeline company’s contributions to the governor,” said landowner Ronni Monroe from Jefferson County.

Other disappointments

Another big disappointment to environmentalists contained in the budget is the removal of water quality protections currently used by 30 counties to protect lakes and rivers. The overturned water protection law was developed with the input of thousands of voters, local government officials, state lawmakers, conservation groups and many others, according to the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. “Yet, in one motion, 12 members of the Joint Finance Committee removed one of local government’s most important tools for ridding their lakes of stinky, toxic algae blooms,” WLVC said in a news release.

In addition, the budget eliminates scientists from the Department of Natural Resources, freezes the state’s land conservation program, raises park fees and eliminates public oversight of a number of conservation-related programs.

The budget ordered the Public Service Commission to undertake a $250,000 study of the safety of wind energy, despite the fact that the PSC just last year concluded such a study using data from peer-reviewed scientific journals. Critics suggest the administration is hoping to manipulate the study this time to produce a different outcome.

The Walker administration has taken extreme actions to halt the growth of alternative energy in Wisconsin at the expense of both jobs and future energy costs. Meanwhile, solar and wind industries are booming in Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois — which is one of the reasons Wisconsin’s economy and job growth are lagging so badly.

“We really are unique in how backward we are in renewable energy,” Ward said. “The majority of the state wants more clean energy, and it’s just not happening.”

Numerous wind energy projects that were interested in Wisconsin have gone to neighboring states due to the Legislature’s unwillingness to establish firm rules about how far turbines can be set back from streets. Wind energy companies won’t invest in costly projects that might be declared in violation of the law after they’re built. 

“Wisconsin already has the strictest setback limits in the nation,” said Amber Meyer Smith, director of government relations for Clean Wisconsin. 

She said the upside of the wind energy budget item is the Legislature declined to fund the study and scaled it back so that it now consists of studying last year’s study. 

Utility companies in the state have established relatively high fees — and even what amount to penalties — for individuals who want to use solar panels on their homes. 

“Our public service commission, which is supposed to be the bridge between the utilities and the public, has been pushing back against alternative energy,” Ward said. “They have decided to continue policies that rely on fossil fuels, especially coal-fired plants, here in Wisconsin.”

That strategy is consistent with the wishes of Koch Industries and other fossil fuel companies, which have donated millions of dollars to elect Walker and Wisconsin Republicans. Since 1997, the Koch Brothers have given at least $79,048,951 to groups denying climate change, according to a study conducted by Greenpeace USA.

Conservationists initially found at least one thing to celebrate in the budget.

Republican lawmakers had refused to give a greenlight to unnecessary expansion of I-94, and they adopted a measure that requires an audit of how the Wisconsin Department of Transportation chooses which projects to recommend and how it conducts traffic studies to assess the need for new highways.

Most projects currently on WisDOT’s to-do list have been discovered to be unneeded. The projects have carried the suspicion of being motivated by cronyism rather than the public’s interests.

Unfortunately, Walker vetoed the item.