Michigan governor aims to shut down oil pipeline; fierce court battles expected

The Mighty Mac towers over the blue waters of the Straits of Mackinac; hundreds of feet below the surface lurks Line 5. (Jenna Spray/Medill)

By Jenna Spray

On Friday, Nov. 13, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer utilized her executive powers, in conjunction with the Department of Natural Resources Director Daniel Eichinger, to revoke the easement allowing a crude oil pipeline—Line 5—to operate in the Straits of Mackinac. The decision comes after more than 15 months of investigation into possible environmental and safety risks.

Enbridge, the energy company operating Line 5, will have until May 2021 to shut the pipeline down. Enbridge is predicted to fight the easement’s revocation in court, but, until then, will continue to seek the necessary permits to proceed with their tunnel project. The energy company is relying on the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) to approve its request in an ongoing contested case.

But a December 9 MPSC meeting may have delayed Enbridge’s desired outcome; the board decided that Whitmer’s notice fundamentally changes what each party is hoping for out of the permit decision, and the case will revert to an administrative judge to redefine the case’s scope. The decision pleased environmental groups, who see it as a step backward for Enbridge.

Just miles east of the towering Mackinac Bridge lies a tiny island suspended in colonial history. Mackinac Island, the jewel of the Midwest, is home to a permanent population of just 473, but hosts over a million visitors each summer.

The island’s culture revolves around resisting modernity. No cars are allowed; all travel must be carried out via bicycle or horse. Colonial homes are maintained for tourists’ pleasure, and old-fashioned fudge shops decorate Main Street. However, just miles west of the Lake Huron paradise lies a 645-mile, 30-inch-diameter crude oil pipeline constantly at risk of a rupture.

Currents running through the Straits of Mackinac on any given day deliver double the power of the headwaters of the Mississippi River, and the lake currents change directions every three days.

Imagine a piece of steel wire in the hands of an eager child. The wire is strong, flexible, and able to maintain its shape without difficulty—that is, until it gets bent one too many times. Suddenly, all that is left are two fractured, sharp pieces, crumbled under the pressure of the violent contortions.

This is the prognosis of many experts for Line 5. The 67-year-old pipeline—designed to last 50 years—has seen better days, and now threatens to wreak havoc on Great Lakes ecosystems, the public health of local communities and the economies of every state bordering Lakes Michigan and Huron.

“A worst-case scenario is a wintertime rupture in rough seas. It would be catastrophic to those communities and to the environment, the habitats, and the wildlife in the Straits. It's just a really risky, dumb place to put a pipeline. And that's not counting the other almost 400 water crossings that Enbridge themselves say exist,” said Nathan Murphy, director of Environment Michigan.

A 2016 study by the University of Michigan’s Graham Sustainability Institute formed the foundation of many advocacy groups’ arguments to shut down Line 5. The study simulated different possibilities for spills in the Straits and how the spill, greatly impacted by current and wind changes, would affect lakes Michigan and Huron and nearby shoreline.

“Line 5 is monitored 24/7 by a dedicated team. If there is a change in pressure or flow, automatic shut off valves on either side of the Straits crossing will immediately shut off flow in minutes and activate trained Enbridge responders. The bottom line is Enbridge will take full responsibility and pay for all costs related to an incident.  Further, federal law imposes an obligation on any party responsible for such an incident to pay all costs for cleanup, restoration, and remediation,” said Ryan Duffy, Communications Strategist for Enbridge.

Enbridge Inc. has a poor track record when it comes to preventing spills and cleaning them up when they happen. Their 2010 pipeline spill in the Kalamazoo River has gone down in history as the largest inland oil spill to ever occur. It led to the evacuation of residents and a four-year-long cleanup process that cost Enbridge $700 million—$50 million more than its insurance policy.

Third-party agencies such as the National Transportation Safety Review Board and the Environmental Protection Agency found that Enbridge had failed numerous times to implement safety standards, such as confronting documented and growing cracks along the pipeline, that could have prevented the devastating spill.

A Line 5 rupture could result in 1.27 million gallons of oil dumped into the lakes, which would not only devastate ecosystems in the Great Lakes region but also end the delicate economic viability of local communities such as Mackinac Island, Mackinaw City, and St. Ignace.

In 2018, TripAdvisor ranked Mackinac Island number one on its “10 Hottest Destinations for Summer” list. The island beat out renowned locations such as Nantucket, Massachusetts and Block Island, Rhode Island.

“Mackinac Island is the number one tourism destination in Michigan. Most people, especially in the past season, see it as a great place for outdoor recreation. As you bike around the island, you can look out into the Straits and see the Mackinac Bridge, and just past the bridge is Line 5,” said Anneke Myers, Mackinac Island city councilperson.

In 2019, Mackinac Island filed a petition against the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s decision to grant two permits to Enbridge that would allow the company to extend operations of the dual crude oil and natural gas pipeline for another 10 years.

“We draw water right out of the lake. We process the water here on the island. If there was a spill, we’d have to shut that down. We would have no water supply, and we’d have to evacuate all our citizens and tourists that are here. We have an evacuation plan drawn up, in case there was a spill,” said Myers.

Mackinaw City ferry companies have told Island leaders that a spill was to occur, the ferries would be removed from the water, leaving Mackinac Island residents and tourists with no transportation options to depart the island.

“We’d have no water and no transportation, which would result in the collapse of our economy,” said Myers.

Enbridge argues that northern Michigan relies on Line 5 for much of its fuel. “The region–including Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Ontario, and Quebec–would see a shortage of 14 million gallons a day of gas, diesel and jet fuel every day (if Line 5 shut down). This represents 45% of the supply,” said Duffy.

The fate of the pipeline lies in the hands of major Michigan government officials, namely, Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel.

“Whitmer campaigned on the idea of shutting down Line 5. Here we are, years later, and her actions have been less than we hoped for. Enbridge’s contract is with the DNR, which is under Whitmer’s jurisdiction, so if she finds out that Enbridge is breaking any part of the contract, she can essentially give them notice that the contract is done with,” said Holtz.

The Line 5 controversy has been trademarked by gubernatorial inaction. Former Gov. Rick Snyder is known to have made backroom deals with Enbridge to help push the construction of the new tunnel through in his lame-duck period. The Whitmer administration has proved slightly more aggressive on Line 5, with Attorney General Nessel leading the charge in the courts.

In 2019, Nessel filed a lawsuit against Enbridge in which she challenges the validity of the original easement, with the goal being shutting Line 5 down permanently. Gov. Whitmer took over and requested a review of the easement, and in July of 2020, wrote a letter addressed to Al Monaco, CEO of Enbridge, asking that he shut the line down in response to numerous reports of damage.

While government leaders have dawdled and embraced their ambivalent tendencies, Line 5 continues to pump 23 million gallons of crude oil each day through the Great Lakes at its most precarious point, risking Michigan’s access to clean water, a healthy environment and regional economic stability in large swaths of the state.

“Under longstanding principles of Michigan’s common law, the state, as sovereign, has an obligation to protect and preserve the waters of the Great Lakes and the lands beneath them for the public. The state serves, in effect, as the trustee of public rights in the Great Lakes for fishing, hunting, and boating for commerce or pleasure,” according to the Michigan Supreme Court.

The state court cannot lawfully relinquish its duty to protect Michigan’s natural resources, even though this move has been made by past administrations. It is up to Gov. Whitmer to take back control over an area that is legally her jurisdiction and shut down Line 5, and finally, she has.

The notice issued by the Governor’s office and the Department of Natural Resources requires Enbridge to cease operations of the pipeline by May 2021, with hopes that this period of time will allow for a peaceful and orderly transition while supporting Michigan’s energy needs. Whitmer has also filed a lawsuit with the Ingraham County Circuit Court to gain legal support for this action.

“After spending more than 15 months reviewing Enbridge’s record over the last 67 years, it is abundantly clear that today’s action is necessary. Enbridge’s historic failures and current non-compliance present too great a risk to our Great Lakes and the people who depend upon them,” said Eichinger in the Governor’s Office’s press release. “Our number one priority is protecting the Great Lakes and we will continue to work with our partners across Michigan in pursuit of that objective.” 

It is unlikely that Enbridge will take the notice sitting down—either way, this development mentions nothing about the looming tunnel project.

“Enbridge remains confident that Line 5 continues to operate safely and that there is no credible basis for terminating the 1953 Easement allowing the Dual Line 5 Pipelines to cross the Straits of Mackinac,” states Enbridge’s press release responding to the notice.

While a long period of litigation surely awaits this case, environmental advocacy groups celebrated across the Midwest as the news broke. Whitmer’s bold action indicates a commitment to the health and wellness of the Great Lakes, a critical component of Michigan’s soul, during a time when the state struggles to unify. If successful, residents of the Great Lakes State can drink, swim, and live peacefully knowing that the ever-lurking threat is no longer.

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