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Opinion | Line 5 is unnecessary and poses a catastrophic risk to Great Lakes

Disaster looms in the North American Great Lakes. Following in the path of the Exxon Valdez’s 1989 11-million-gallon oil spill in Alaska and the BP/Transocean Gulf of Mexico explosion releasing more than 200 million gallons, we sit on the precipice of another such catastrophe. 

Here is the situation.

photo of Tracy Dobson
Tracy Dobson is associate dean emeritus of Michigan State University’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.

Enbridge, Inc’s sprawling gas and oil pipelines span the northern United States and Canada. Among them is Line 5, a currently contested, 71-year-old pipeline that runs across Wisconsin and Michigan.

In Wisconsin, it crosses sovereign lands of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians. In Michigan, it crosses the 5-mile stretch of the Straits of Mackinac, the connecting waters between Lakes Michigan and Huron. 

Together, the five Great Lakes contain 20 percent of the world’s surface fresh water. Enbridge seeks to construct a tunnel under the Straits, keeping the pipeline running for the years it will take for approval and construction. Michigan and the tribe are fighting to shut down the pipeline and prevent the tunnel.

The Bad River Band successfully sued to remove 12 miles of Enbridge’s Line 5 from its tribal sovereign lands. In June 2023, a U.S. district court held that the corporation must pay damages and move the pipeline off tribal lands within three years, or by June 2026. Enbridge and the Bad River Band cross-appealed the ruling to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, which recently held oral arguments. On April 10, the Department of Justice filed an amicus brief agreeing with the district court as to the Band’s trespass claim, but urging the 7th Circuit in its remand to reverse the nuisance claim based on the Pipeline Safety Act. 

When elected, and after evidence emerged of sustained shoddy maintenance and safety risks associated with Line 5 at the Straits, Governor Gretchen Whitmer filed suit to revoke and terminate the corporation’s easement across the publicly owned lakebed under the Straits. That suit was ultimately voluntarily dismissed. However, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s 2019 lawsuit to evict Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline from the state’s public-trust waters and bottomlands continues to wend its way through the courts. The AG has argued to move the case back to state court after Enbridge successfully removed it to federal court. This request is now under review in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Oral arguments in that case were heard on March 21, 2024.

Meanwhile, Enbridge’s request to dig through bedrock under the Straits is under agency review. State agencies have given the project a green light; however, the MPSC’s decision is currently being appealed. 

The Army Corps of Engineers also bears responsibility to review the application for tunnel construction. On March 23, 2023, the Corps announced that it would take an additional 18 months for its review so that a final permit decision may come in 2026. Construction will take 4 years. As time passes, the aging underwater pipeline deteriorates further and poses a ticking time bomb to the Great Lakes.

Enbridge has a record of damaging pipeline spills. One of its largest and the most devastating inland oil spills in U.S. history occurred in July 2010 in Michigan when Enbridge’s Line 6B spilled more than 1 million gallons of crude oil in the Kalamazoo River. It took 17 hours before Enbridge responded. Cleanup and settlement costs with the state and local individuals and communities were in the billions of dollars. Homes, businesses, and communities in and around the small town of Marshall were destroyed. 

If Line 5 experiences a major breakdown, can we count on Enbridge to properly and promptly respond?

A recent expert report has shed light on the likely economic impacts of a Line 5 shutdown, indicating that such effects would be minimal with an orderly transition. The report, prepared by economic and industrial logistics experts PLG Consulting, is the latest and most detailed expert analysis of what would happen to oil and gas prices if Line 5 shuts down. PLG’s detailed report, ”White Paper: Likely Market Responses to a Line 5 Shutdown,” reveals that alternatives to Line 5 are available now to move Enbridge’s product to the sites to which it is currently delivered. In the executive summary, the report states that with three months of advance planning, alternatives to Line 5 would be up and running.

“Taken together, it is clear that there exists a range of commercially feasible and operationally viable solutions that can provide alternative crude and NGL supply chains to affected markets in the event of a Line 5 shutdown. That such myriad options exist and can be readily implemented is consistent with the nature of hydrocarbon supply chains in North America, of which Line 5 products and markets are a part.” P.17

So, that leaves us with this question: Why is Enbridge insisting on using Line 5, in light of the enormous environmental risks, the multibillion-dollar costs of constructing a tunnel under the Great Lakes and rerouting the decaying pipeline around the Bad River Band?

As a lifelong Michigan resident and lover of the Great Lakes, I am personally horrified and terrified by the prospects of a Line 5 spill. I am angered that an outside corporation without a personal stake in our future would so casually risk ruining it all. We fish and recreate in these waters. My neighbors’ businesses are built on this magnificent lake economy. We must stop them.

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