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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Opinion | Line 5 critics aren’t serious about environmental protection

Last week a commentary in Bridge Michigan argued that President Biden should have placed a move away from fossil fuels on the top of his agenda when he made his first trip to Canada as president. It also encouraged him to close an essential pipeline that transports petroleum products from western Canada to the American Midwest as well as Ontario and Quebec.

Jason Hayes headshot
Jason Hayes is the director of energy and environmental policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market research and educational institute in Midland, Mich.

Closing the pipeline, however, would harm both nations, especially in the Great Lakes region.

The Line 5 pipeline was built in 1953 to “drastically reduce the amount of oil and gas traveling on the Great Lakes” in tankers, according to one news account. The state of Michigan asked Bechtel Corp. to build the pipeline, since tankers have a higher rate of accidents than pipelines. Line 5, now operated by Enbridge Energy, transports as many as 540,000 barrels of heating and transportation fuels per day, much of it used here.

Michigan’s homes use propane more than those elsewhere in the country, and the pipeline provides the 55 percent of the propane it uses for all purposes. The pipeline also provides about 45 percent of the raw materials required by refineries in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, as well as those in Ontario and Quebec. Detroit Metro Airport and Toronto’s Pearson Airport both depend on the pipeline for jet fuel.

Line 5 is the most important energy provider in the region, yet the authors of the commentary demand its closure. They say it is septuagenarian, arguing that it was “built to last only fifty years.” They also point to the unrelated rupture of Line 6B, an Indiana-to-Ontario pipeline that befouled the Kalamazoo River in July 2010. The contention appears to be that if one pipeline has leaked, another almost certainly will.

Should we close the Mackinac Bridge while we’re at it? It uses the same type of steel and faces the same extremes in temperature and water pressure. Both were built in the 1950s. The engineering firm of Merritt-Chapman & Scott was an important contractor for the bridge and the pipeline. Research suggests 128 bridges in the U.S. collapse in an average year, and one of Merritt-Chapman’s bridges did suffer extensive damage in 1942. Relying on the authors’ questionable logic, we must conclude that bridges are inherently unsafe and should be removed.

But we could, instead, remember that in 2017 the pipeline passed a pressure test similar to tests it took back in 1953 before it went in the water. We could recognize that the walls of the Line 5 pipeline “are three times as thick … as those of a typical pipeline.” We could also acknowledge that the pipeline is continuously monitored and inspected.

Those of us who want to protect the Great Lakes and simultaneously maintain supplies of essential energy should demand that state and federal government officials stop holding up the construction of the Line 5 Tunnel. The Army Corps of Engineers recently stated that “it will take an additional 18 months to review Enbridge's permit application” for the tunnel project. Enbridge is capable of moving the pipeline from its current spot in the water to a concrete-lined tunnel, 100 feet below the lakebed. But thanks to this and other delays, that will have to wait until 2030, if not later.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel has added to the delay with various lawsuits against Enbridge. But if people in the “shut it down” coalition were serious about dealing with the challenges of delivering necessary fuels while also protecting the environment, they would turn their critiques toward time-wasting tactics such as we’re seeing from the Army Corps and Michigan’s attorney general. Instead, critics applaud every legal and regulatory tactic that further stalls construction of the tunnel, meaning the “septuagenarian” pipeline continues to operate, right where it has, since 1953.

The pipeline’s opponents say there could be a spill. Yet, they also oppose a plan to develop a less risky alternative. In doing so, they end up extending the life of a pipeline they deplore. The irony goes unnoticed.

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Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact David Zeman. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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