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Opinion | Enbridge is not working to protect Michigan waters

Politics aside, we Michiganders unite around our deep love for the Great Lakes. We adorn our cars, shirts, baseball caps, and coffee mugs with Great Lakes images and slogans like, “4 out of 5 Great Lakes prefer Michigan” and “No salt, no sharks, no worries.” 

Enbridge Energy, which owns and operates the decaying Line 5 oil pipelines that cross in the Straits of Mackinac, has tried to buy its way into this Great Lakes-proud storyline with extensive lobbying and an aggressive statewide ad campaign.  

At the same time, Enbridge has been pursuing a scorched-earth strategy in the courts, trying to force the hand of state government to bless continued operation of its pipelines for another decade while an underwater tunnel is built – instead of sitting down and negotiating with Governor Whitmer on a timeline to decommission Line 5 and address the real risk to Michigan’s waters and its people.

The Enbridge legal strategy scored an interim victory on Oct. 31, when a Michigan Court of Claims judge ruled that the legislation authorizing the tunnel was constitutional despite an adverse opinion from Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel.

Resorting to legal hardball undercuts Enbridge’s unceasing stream of full-page ads in major newspapers across Michigan that read: “We’re working to protect Michigan’s water.” 

But those ads themselves betray Enbridge’s assault on the truth. An investigative report by Bridge Magazine last month uncovered that a man pictured in one of its ads is not an Enbridge employee, but a federal employee working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor. The reporting found that Enbridge not only failed to get permission to use Eric Anderson’s photo, but it also edited out his NOAA badge, with the result that he appears to be an Enbridge employee “working to protect Michigan’s water.” 

If nothing else, recent developments provide another glimpse into the Enbridge playbook of distraction and deception. Here’s how: 

Step 1: Distract lawmakers, local officials, and the public from focusing on the high risk of catastrophic harm from the current Line 5 oil pipeline operations installed in 1953 in our public waters. Instead, promote a get-’er-done “solution” to build a multibillion-dollar, private oil pipeline tunnel through public bottomlands without even knowing its feasibility and ignoring the climate crisis. 

Step 2:  Mislead state officials and the public about the company’s willingness and financial capacity to bear the costs of spill cleanup.  An expert report submitted to the state finds that based on recent filings, parties to the tunnel agreement Enbridge signed last December with lame-duck Gov. Rick Snyder “did not have $1.878 billion in liquid assets, credit facilities and insurance for the damages arising from a rupture of Line 5.” That means one thing – taxpayers would shoulder the burden.

Step 3: Hire public relations firms with big budgets to develop a deceptive multimillion-dollar advertising campaign across Michigan to counter strong public opinion against Enbridge’s risky Line 5.

Step 4: Hire lobbyists to persuade and work side-by-side with county governments to draft copycat resolutions and op-eds supporting a tunnel to house a private Canadian oil pipeline under our Great Lakes. 

The public demands action on Enbridge’s Line 5 in the Straits as we approach the gales of November, a long winter, and zero capability of cleaning up an oil spill under ice. Fortunately, there is a simple, equitable remedy for the danger posed by Enbridge’s Line 5 pipelines: Restoring the rule of law on Line 5, as Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel is rightly seeking to do in her lawsuit to shut down Line 5 because of its high risk to our public waters.  That suit moves forward while last week’s Court of Claims ruling is appealed.

Enbridge has so far escaped the legal requirement with which all others who want to use the publicly owned lakebed must comply: a demonstration under Michigan law that its patchwork pipeline overhaul and the proposed tunnel will not pose an unacceptable risk to the Great Lakes and the public interest, and that there are no feasible prudent alternatives. PR claims alone do not meet this requirement.

A Line 5 shutdown is the only real way to protect Michigan’s waters from Enbridge.

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