In Northern Michigan, the Straits of Mackinac flow between two Great Lakes and are spanned by a five-mile bridge connecting the state’s upper and lower peninsulas. With forested islands, whitecapped waves, and the constant passage of international shipping vessels, the view from the straits puts the beauty, power, and economic importance of the Great Lakes on full display.
Whitmer said that Line 5 poses “an unacceptable risk of a catastrophic oil spill in the Great Lakes,” and that such an event could devastate Michigan’s economy and way of life.
But just west of the bridge and hundreds of feet beneath the water, a sixty-seven-year-old oil pipeline known as Line 5 runs along the lake bed and is seen by many as a ticking time bomb. It has become the focal point of environmental activism in the region for the past decade.
While a shutdown order from the state of Michigan has given hope to Line 5’s many opponents, a federal countersuit from the company behind its operation has escalated tensions and put a spotlight on this remote corner of the North Woods.
Enbridge Line 5 was constructed in 1953 and now carries nearly 23 million gallons of crude oil and natural gas liquids between Superior, Wisconsin, and Sarnia, Ontario, every day. The safety of the pipeline has been called into question in recent years, and its crossing of the Straits of Mackinac has received more media coverage than any other point of contention along its 645-mile route.
The pipeline’s owner, the Canadian energy company Enbridge, has been sued multiple times by state attorney generals, nonprofit organizations and Ojibwe tribal governments over concerns surrounding Line 5. For those plaintiffs and other concerned citizens, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s November 13 shutdown order was cause for celebration.
Whitmer’s order terminated the state’s 1953 easement with Enbridge, and called for the flow of oil beneath the straits to cease by May of 2021. It came after the Michigan Department of Natural Resources reviewed the 1953 easement with Enbridge and found the risk of an oil spill in the Great Lakes to be unlawfully imposed on the citizens of Michigan.
In a statement on the day of the shutdown order, Whitmer said that Line 5 poses “an unacceptable risk of a catastrophic oil spill in the Great Lakes,” and that such an event could devastate Michigan’s economy and way of life.
In March of 2016, researchers from the University of Michigan created visual illustrations of spill scenarios in the Straits of Mackinac. They showed how 150 miles of Lake Michigan and Huron shoreline could be affected in a worst-case spill event, and that more than seventeen thousand square miles of open water could be visibly affected by an oil spill in the straits.
Even before these spill scenarios were projected, the people of Michigan had good cause to be wary of Enbridge pipelines—the company has a far from spotless record when it comes to oil spills in their state. A disastrous 2010 spill in Michigan was the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history at the time, with up to a million gallons of crude oil pumped into the Kalamazoo River.
Later investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board revealed that Enbridge had been aware of cracks in Line 6B for five years but had neglected to make repairs. When the pipeline ruptured, it took seventeen hours for Enbridge to detect the six-foot gash and shut off the flow of oil. Drastic efforts were needed to stop the oil spilled from Line 6B from reaching Lake Michigan, about ninety miles downstream. Line 5 sits directly in the Great Lakes, and is currently sixteen years older than Line 6B was when it ruptured.
Michiganders’ fears of a spill were heightened in May of 2019 when underwater video footage from beneath the Straits revealed structural damage to the pipeline. The damage was the result of a ship’s anchor dragging along the lakebed and striking Line 5 in April of 2018: an event Enbridge had failed to report until releasing the video more than a year later.
Enbridge disputes Governor Whitmer’s claims—the company spoke out in defense of its pipeline’s safety on the same day as the shutdown order, and promptly filed a federal lawsuit challenging the shutdown order. It called the termination of the 1953 easement illegal, arguing that decisions regarding pipeline safety lie in the hands of the federal government, not the state of Michigan.
Michigan, however, justifies the termination of Enbridge’s lease by way of the public trust doctrine. This refers to the concept that some resources—such as fresh water—should receive special protection by the government and be held in trust for public use. States’ rights to apply the public trust doctrine were first confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1892.
“The state of Michigan is the legal guardian of the public trust waters,” Liz Kirkwood, executive director of the nonprofit FLOW (For Love of Water), tells The Progressive. “They have a paramount duty to the public and to the waters and all the uses of fishing, swimming, navigation, commerce, and more.”
Mike Bradley, the mayor of Sarnia, Ontario, which is Line 5’s southeastern terminus, disagrees, and sides with Enbridge’s position in the newly filed lawsuit. He told the Canadian Broadcasting Company in a radio interview that a shutdown would cost 5,000 jobs in Ontario. Bradley also questioned Governor Whitmer’s preparation for a world without Line 5, citing Enbridge’s self-reported claim of providing 55 percent of Michigan’s statewide propane needs. Bradley said he was “puzzled” by the fact he hasn’t seen “any solution put forth” by Governor Whitmer for how Michigan will meet its energy needs without Line 5.
According to Bradley and other proponents of Line 5, the best solution is a proposed tunnel encasing the pipeline beneath the straits—a project that was approved by Michigan’s former Governor Rick Snyder just two years ago.
Enbridge pledged more than $500 million to construct the tunnel, which it says would prevent oil from leaking into Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, even in the event of Line 5’s rupture.
But Kirkwood argues that the tunnel is no solution at all.
“This is not an alternative we should be embracing,” Kirkwood says. “With the construction of the tunnel you have the impact on wetlands and the discharge of wastewater directly into the straits. On top of all that, the continued operation of Line 5 is in conflict with Michigan’s goals for reducing carbon emissions,” said Kirkwood, citing an executive order from Governor Whitmer that targets 2050 as a goal for the state’s carbon neutrality.
While Governor Whitmer took bold action in issuing a shutdown order, Enbridge’s contersuit means the fate of Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac remains undecided.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.