Michigan isn’t just a Great Lakes state: It’s the Great Lakes State.
With nearly 3,300 miles of freshwater Michigan coastline, no other state comes close. Michigan’s beaches, dunes, Pictured Rocks, fudgy and remote islands, protected bays and sport and commercial fishing offer a unifying source of pride that cuts across the political and cultural chasms that sometimes divide us.
So how did Michigan ever grant an oil transport company based in western Canada a legal right-of-way to build twin pipelines across 4.6 miles of bottomlands in the Straits of Mackinac? The Enbridge lines, opened in 1953, now push 23 million gallons of light crude oil and liquified natural gas toward refineries and other destinations every day.
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Since 2010, when the disastrous rupture of another Enbridge pipeline unleashed 1.2 million gallons of heavy crude in and around the Kalamazoo River, the state has faced mounting pressure to shut down Line 5, which stretches across the sandy bottom of the straits.
Leading the charge is a coalition of activists, businesses, residents and, increasingly, some strange-bedfellows politicians. Their voices are bipartisan, their motivations intensely personal, with officeholders who may agree on little else invoking intimate connections with Michigan’s lakes and streams in challenging Enbridge.
An opponent of Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline through the Straits of Mackinac recently urged that it be shutdown at a state public hearing in Petoskey. (Bridge photo by Bob Campbell)
Lawmakers speaking out against Line 5 now include state Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, a conservative once in the crosshairs of environmental activists but now lauded by them as a legislative star. His mother-in-law lost her home in the Kalamazoo spill.
They include U.S. Rep. Dave Trott, R-Birmingham, a Trump acolyte with an environmental rating in the low single digits by the national League of Conservation Voters, who joined this year with Rep. Debbie Dingell, a stalwart Democrat from Dearborn, on legislation to tighten oversight of Great Lakes pipelines.
State Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, traces his skepticism toward Enbridge’s ability to keep oil out of the Straits of Mackinac to the disastrous rupture in 2010 of an Enbridge line in the Kalamazoo River.
They include state Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, the majority floor leader, who the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club once put on its list of “Pollution Promoters.” Kowall told Bridge “the Great Lakes is part of our DNA,” and has called for the shutdown of Line 5.
They include U.S. Senators Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow, progressive Democrats, but also former U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, a Republican who returned to local politics last year to improve conditions along Lake St. Clair, where she was raised on the water.
“The issue is so significant that it’s important to let Enbridge know that other eyes are looking at this,” said Trott. “The more scrutiny, the more Enbridge is going to have to raise its game.”
A troubling history
It’s safe to say few Michiganders knew much about the Straits pipelines until the 2010 rupture of the Enbridge pipes along the Kalamazoo River, among the largest inland oil spills in U.S. history, which cost Enbridge nearly $1.3 billion to remediate. In seven years since, politicians, regulators, businesses, activists and residents have aggressively pushed to learn more about what’s being done to ensure oil from Enbridge’s aging Line 5 pipes is not released into the Straits.
State Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, the majority floor leader, was once listed as a top promoter of pollution by an environmental group. He’s now among the conservative Republican voices calling for the shutdown of Line 5.
The dispute was supposed to arrive at a critical juncture this week with the planned release of twin reports: one detailing the risks of a rupture along Line 5, and the second looking at alternative routes to move Enbridge oil to U.S. refineries.
Instead, policymakers and advocates are scrambling to determine next steps after the risk-assessment report was cancelled, and the firm behind it fired, when it was learned that a member of the reporting team was also performing side work for Enbridge.
The cancelled report may delay a drama that Enbridge critics say the state could have ended long ago by shutting down Line 5. That decision, when it comes, will carry consequences not only for the Great Lakes, but for the future of politicians who have attached themselves to the controversy, including state Attorney General Bill Schuette, who has talked tough about Enbridge but is viewed as not being sufficiently aggressive by some environmental groups, and of course Gov. Rick Snyder, whose environmental legacy is already bruised by the ongoing water crisis in Flint.
But even as Schuette and Snyder head toward an intraparty showdown over culpability in Flint, Democratic and Republican office holders in Lansing and Washington are building a consensus that seems headed toward decommissioning of the Straits pipelines.
Some conclude that the only solution is to “Shut It Down!” ‒ as large segments of audiences roared in unison at meetings of the Michigan Pipeline Safety Advisory Board including one held June 12 in Petoskey. Others are more circumspect but want greater transparency from Enbridge, and proof that the risk of a spill is infinitesimal and, if it did happen, would be very limited.
The Line 5 controversy “has has hit a chord unlike anything I’ve worked with before,” Mike Shriberg, regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Center in Ann Arbor, said of public sentiment. “When I give a talk and hands go up at the end, nine times out of 10 this is what they want to talk about. It hits the core of our Great Lakes values. It (the Straits pipeline) is either going to be there or not.”
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Later this week, the state is still to release the second planned report: on alternatives to using the 64-year-old Straits pipelines to transport oil. Options include using new or existing pipes that avoid the Great Lakes entirely; building a new pipeline to replace the existing one, possibly by digging under the floor of the Straits, or routing the oil north through Ontario to refineries in Sarnia.
Each option would be expensive and likely fraught with its own environmental issues.
But many who have participated in the Line 5 debate say they are skeptical that any resolution can be reached without a reliable risk analysis report.
Gail Gruenwald, executive director and attorney for the Tip of the Mitt Watershed in Petoskey, said while she agrees with the state’s decision to fire the risk-assessment contractor that it’s a huge setback for resolving the controversy.
“It’s been a challenge to get any information for the last four years,” she said. “We had heard so many different numbers and now none of that will be answered.”
Shriberg, of the National Wildlife Federation and Michigan advisory panel, said he doesn’t believe the state should seek a new independent risk report. It would delay the process dramatically, he said, and there are other ways to get the needed numbers.
“It was certainly another bombshell in the process. But we still have a pathway to decommission this line. We need to come up with numbers, yes. But we don’t need a $3.5 million study to get us there.”
“We’re taking almost all the risks of this pipeline with almost none of the benefits.”
Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, has teamed up with conservative Republican U.S. Rep. Dave Trott of Birmingham on a bill that would increase monitoring efforts on pipelines in the Great Lakes.
Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy quarrels with that description. The company has said it continues to believe the 645-mile pipeline, which splits into two pipelines just west of the Mackinac Bridge to cross the Straits bottomland, is a winner for the state.
Enbridge says Line 5 provides most of Michigan’s propane, a good dose of its pre-refined gasoline, and roughly $55 million in property taxes in 2016, while providing over 100 Michigan jobs paying $8 million in wages. Moreover, Duffy said, the pipelines that cross the Straits have been shown to be safe by ongoing testing and monitoring which go beyond regulatory requirements and were stepped up after the Kalamazoo River disaster.
“Without a doubt, it was one of the darkest periods ever for the company,” Duffy said of the 2010 spill, adding that Enbridge shares the concerns of those who want to protect the Straits and Great Lakes. “A lot of our employees live up there. They enjoy all the things Michigan has to offer… Our focus is just to operate Line 5 safely.”
Every new Enbridge employee today, Duffy said, gets a ring made out of the Line 6B pipe that ruptured in 2010, a reminder of the company’s commitment to avoiding future pipeline catastrophes.
But after Kalamazoo, Enbridge’s professed dedication to safety has proved a hard sell in Michigan.
As Liz Kirkwood, executive director for the Traverse City-based group For Love of Water, put it: “Kalamazoo and the 17 hours it took to turn off the flow from that ruptured pipe is my answer to why I don’t trust Enbridge.”
Last year, the National Wildlife Federation commissioned two questions in a statewide poll of 600 residents conducted by EPIC/MRA of Lansing. The first asked whether oil pipelines should be allowed under the Great Lakes. By a margin of nearly 2-1, Michigan residents said no. A second question was more specific, asking whether the existing Line 5 pipeline should be shut down: 66 percent of respondents said shut it down, with 27 percent supporting Line 5.
The poll, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, also showed:
Democrats were most likely to have negative responses toward the pipeline, followed by independents and Republicans. Still, by a 50-to-41 percent margin, Michigan Republicans said the pipeline across the Straits shouldn’t be used.
Among residents in northern Michigan, where oil and gas drilling and production are a bigger part of the economy, twice as many people supported shutting down Line 5 as keeping it open.
U.S. Sen. Gary Peters has teamed with fellow Sen. Debbie Stabenow on legislation to battle oil pipelines in the Great Lakes.
Ken Sikkema, a former Republican legislative leader and now senior policy fellow with Public Sector Consultants in Lansing, said two people who belong to the conservative, evangelical church he attends in Grand Rapids approached him separately recently about the Straits pipeline. They were amazed the state ever allowed it.
“They’re very concerned about Enbridge and just the notion that there’s a pipeline on the bottomlands of the Straits,” Sikkema said. “There’s a queasiness about it.”
He said he’s found in discussions with residents that “people across the spectrum always come back to the Great Lakes, and that includes Trump and Clinton voters. It’s really what defines us as a state.”
Public opposition to Enbridge is being fortified by steady grassroots organizing efforts. The group Oil and Water Don’t Mix, for instance, is marshalling hundreds of small businesses and organizations, 15 Native American tribes or bands, 26 cities ranging from Detroit to Mackinac Island,16 counties, 26 townships and two conservation districts, to fight Line 5.
But the fate of the straits pipelines is perhaps most threatened by the increasingly bipartisan opposition of political leaders in Lansing and Washington.
Jones, the Grand Blanc Republican, became an advocate for shutting down Line 5 after seeing what the Line 6B spill in the Kalamazoo River did to his mother-in-law. Her home was so close that it was among those Enbridge purchased in the aftermath.
“Enbridge is full of baloney. They know the line should be removed. They’re just using (Michigan) as a shortcut. I’m very hopeful that when the reports come out, people will see the danger and come to the conclusion that oil lines don’t belong in the Great Lakes.” ‒ State Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge
“This really brought it home to me,” Jones told Bridge. “Enbridge is full of baloney. They know the line should be removed. They’re just using (Michigan) as a shortcut. I’m very hopeful that when the reports come out, people will see the danger and come to the conclusion that oil lines don’t belong in the Great Lakes.”
Opponents of Line 5 often note that the Great Lakes hold 84 percent of the U.S. surface fresh water and 21 percent of the world’s supply of surface freshwater. They also note that the water flowing through the Straits is 10 times the volume that moves through the Niagara Falls, and that unpredictable currents and weather, including ice cover, could render winter oil containment all but impossible. A University of Michigan study used computer modeling to show how a spill could churn oil across more than 700 miles of shoreline in lakes Michigan and Huron.
Jones introduced legislation last year that would ban future pipelines in the Great Lakes and require operators of existing lines to undergo a full risk analysis by a third party. If risks are high, the pipeline would have to shut down. Enbridge representatives were in his office the next day, he said, asking him to back off.
The bill hasn’t gotten a hearing in the Senate’s Natural Resources Committee where Sen. Tom Casperson, an Escanaba Republican, is the chairman. After its introduction, Casperson, according to MLive.com, called the bill “irresponsible” because it didn’t address an alternative for getting propane to his Upper Peninsula constituents who rely heavily on it for heating. Line 5 carries, according to Enbridge, 65 percent of the raw material ‒ liquid natural gas ‒ used for propane in the Upper Peninsula.
In Washington, Trott, whose congressional district represents Oakland and western Wayne County, tag-teamed with Dingell, of Dearborn, to introduce a bill in January that would require more scrutiny of Great Lakes pipelines and increase the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to shut down those that pose unacceptable risks. The bill runs counter to efforts by the Trump Administration to reduce environmental regulations and shrink the EPA’s budget.
Trott said he began to dig into the Line 5 controversy at the urging of a close friend who lives near the Straits. On his legislation with Dingell, Trott said he was following the lead of Candice Miller, the Macomb County Republican, who introduced similar legislation when she was in the House.
Miller, now Public Works Commissioner of Macomb County, grew up as a competitive sailor and has lived along Lake St. Clair most of her life. “I believe we need the energy,” Miller said, “but I think we need to rethink this pipeline laying at the bottom of the Straits.”
Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller cited growing up along Lake St. Clair as a catalyst for her efforts to ensure water quality in Michigan.
Dingell, as well, cited a personal and emotional attachment to the blue waters of the Great Lakes growing up along the St. Clair River, the connecting waterway flowing out of Lake Huron and into Lake St. Clair. Even today, she said, the idea of jumping in the river with an inner tube to float along on its swift current is tantalizing.
“The water was my way of life for 20 years,” Dingell said. “It’s not Republican or Democratic. The idea that a spill could hurt the fish, wildlife or drinking water is something that’s very upsetting to me.”
Michigan’s U.S. Senators, Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow, have also been aggressive. A bill Peters sponsored last year passed nearly unanimously with Republican co-sponsors from other Great Lakes states. It designated the entire Great Lakes basin as a “high consequence” and “unusually sensitive” area requiring ‒ among other things ‒ that pipeline operators consider issues like ice cover when writing contingency plans for spills.
“Next to our people, the Great Lakes are our greatest asset,” Peters told Bridge. “I believe our long-term goal has to be to shut down that pipeline. There are other alternatives to move that product.”
In January, Peters and Stabenow introduced a measure that would remove the cap on cleanup and remediation liability limits for pipeline companies and other oil transporters, currently capped at $634 million. It also would require that owners of pipelines in the Great Lakes be responsible for up to $134 million in economic damages caused by a spill.
For the record, Enbridge accepted full responsibility for nearly $1.3 billion in costs from the Line 6B rupture, despite the liability limit in place.
While Line 5 opponents are impatient for Snyder or Schuette to take steps to shut it down, the timetable for a decision is now anyone’s guess. Snyder and Schuette both leave office at the end of 2018, though Schuette is expected to run for governor next year.
Gruenwald, of the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, contends there has been a lot of exaggeration and misinformation on both sides of the Line 5 debate. Her organization, sometimes criticized by environmental activists as too cautious, was very deliberate in its assessment before concluding that the Straits pipeline needs to be shut down.
“We are very careful about the policy decisions we take. We make sure we can defend them from a technical perspective,” she said, adding that her group’s pipelines expert, Jennifer McKay, concluded that while the risk of a major spill is small the potential damage doesn’t justify that risk.
“The one thing I can confidently predict,” Gruenwald said, “is that this will end up in court.”