Q&A: What Michigan’s move to shut down Enbridge Line 5 means

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Friday gave Enbridge Energy 180 days to cease operations of the Line 5 petroleum pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac, citing safety concerns arising from Enbridge’s repeated violation of a state easement that allows it to operate the pipeline in the Straits. (Shutterstock)

The clock is ticking to shut down the Line 5 pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac, following Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s announcement Friday that she has given Enbridge 180 days to stop running petroleum products through the pipeline.

 

But much remains unclear after Enbridge vowed to fight Whitmer’s decision, prompting what will likely be a protracted legal battle.

Here’s what we know now: 

What happened?

Whitmer notified Enbridge on Friday that the state is revoking a 1953 easement that gives the company permission to operate Line 5 in the Straits, setting a May deadline for the company to permanently shut down the pipeline. 

The announcement came following a long-awaited review of Enbridge’s compliance with the easement. 

In a notice sent to Enbridge, Whitmer and Department of Natural Resources Director Dan Eichinger essentially implied that the easement never should have been granted because allowing Enbridge to operate Line 5 in the Straits violates the public trust doctrine, a legal tenet that requires Michigan to hold navigable waterways and the lands beneath them in trust for public uses such as fishing, boating and recreation.

Whitmer, who campaigned on a promise to shut down Line 5, has long sided with pipeline opponents who worry that Line 5’s position exposed at the bottom of the straits leaves it vulnerable to anchor strikes and other hazards that could cause a catastrophic oil spill.

Line 5 has endured multiple anchor strikes in recent years that have dented the pipeline and scraped its protective coating. 

In Friday’s revocation notice, the state concluded that the oil spill risk associated with continuing to operate the pipelines “cannot be reconciled with the public’s right in the Great Lakes and the state’s duty to protect them.” 

In addition to that underlying issue, Whitmer and Eichinger wrote that Enbridge has routinely violated the terms of its easement, which requires the company to use “due care” in operating its pipeline in the Straits.

Among the issues Whitmer and Eichinger flagged: 

  • Enbridge has ignored pipeline support requirements “for virtually the entire time the Easement has been in place,” allowing parts of the pipeline more than 75 feet in length to hang unsupported over the lakebed.
  • Enbridge also has failed to ensure the pipeline is properly coated, at times resulting in “bare metal” that was not immediately fixed. 
  • Bends in the pipe raise concerns about its structural integrity. 

The state alleges these violations are “persistent and incurable,” and thus the only solution is to shut down the pipeline. 

Will the order stick? 

That’s unclear. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel has filed a lawsuit in Ingham County Circuit Court seeking an injunction to reinforce the state’s order, and Enbridge has vowed to challenge the order. 

Both Line 5 supporters and opponents agreed the revocation order is likely to become tied up in a lengthy legal battle.

Nessel is also pursuing a separate lawsuit aimed at revoking the easement. Ingham County Circuit Court Judge James Jamo, who is presiding over that case, has not indicated when he’ll issue a ruling.

What are the implications for Michigan’s energy needs? 

Enbridge has warned that a Line 5 shutdown would threaten Michigan’s energy security, particularly for Upper Peninsula residents who rely upon propane from Line 5 to heat their homes. The company has also said a Line 5 shutdown would increase fuel prices and harm Southeast Michigan and Ohio refineries that process oil from Line 5.

But during a brief shutdown in June, gas prices did not noticeably rise. 

A report from Public Sector Consultants estimated that a shutdown of Line 5 would cause an annual shortfall of 230.1 million gallons of propane statewide, the equivalent to 46 percent of statewide supplies and 87.6 percent of supplies for the Upper Peninsula. 

The report concluded that Michigan has other options to fulfill Upper Peninsula energy needs, but those options would come with modest cost increases. Alternative options include transporting propane by rail, increasing storage capacity in the U.P., and shifting to other energy sources, among other possibilities.

But it’s unclear how long it would take to bring those solutions online, said Eric Pardini, the Public Sector Consultants director who led the report, nor whether such a shift would disrupt the propane industry elsewhere. 

Spokespeople for Whitmer did not immediately respond to questions Friday afternoon about how the state plans to address the U.P.’s energy needs if Line 5 is shut down. 

What are the implications for Michigan’s economy?

It depends who you ask.

Line 5 opponents contend that keeping the pipeline operational poses the biggest economic risk by threatening jobs that rely upon the Great Lakes and imperiling a key drinking water source.

A 2016 study from University of Michigan scientists found that a spill in Line 5 could sully up to 152 miles of shoreline in lakes Michigan and Huron. 

Enbridge, meanwhile, has warned that shutting down the pipeline will cost Michigan jobs on the pipeline, along with jobs connected to the region’s oil industry. 

In a statement Friday, Mike Johnston, Vice President of the Michigan Manufacturers Association, said the total job loss would amount to “thousands.”

But Line 5 opponents argue more jobs would be created in the effort to decommission the pipeline and transport fuel by other means. 

Does this also spell the end of the Line 5 tunnel? 

Not necessarily. 

Enbridge has vowed to forge ahead with plans for the tunnel. But some of the company’s supporters and an energy analyst reached by Bridge Michigan argued Whitmer’s action jeopardizes the tunnel plan.

Enbridge has said it plans to begin construction on the tunnel next year and start operating the pipeline inside the tunnel by 2024, but that timeline is increasingly unrealistic given that Enbridge is still awaiting multiple permits and facing legal challenges aimed at blocking the tunnel project.

That means Enbridge could be without a pipeline in the Straits for several years while it awaits the tunnel — a reality that Phil Flynn, senior energy analyst at The PRICE Futures Group in Chicago, said almost certainly affects the tunnel project’s economic viability.

Enbridge is used to “waiting around” for legal challenges to reach their conclusion, Flynn said, but “at some point they may walk away and say enough is enough.”

Labor unions and industry groups who support the tunnel have said it will bring thousands of jobs to Michigan. In a statement Friday, the Great Lakes Michigan Jobs Coalition, which includes many of those groups, urged state regulators to move swiftly to permit the tunnel project.

But tunnel opponents have vowed to fight every step of the way. Many have already intervened in an ongoing case before the Michigan Public Service Commission, which is tasked with deciding whether Enbridge can move Line 5 inside the tunnel, should it be built. 

What are the next steps?

A court battle. 

Nessel’s lawsuit has been assigned to Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Clinton Canady. But as of Friday afternoon, Canady had not scheduled any proceedings related to the case.

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Comments

R W Schultz
Mon, 11/16/2020 - 9:03am

As an alternative to lengthy court battles and potential harm to the Lakes, how about Enbridge pouring its resources into correcting the current potentially dangerous problems that already exist with transparency and assistance from Civil Engineers (Michigan Tech, U of M come to mind) as well as a deadline for compliance and oversight from appropriate government agencies.

Anonymous
Tue, 11/17/2020 - 10:34am

But in the meantime, shut it down.

EB
Mon, 11/16/2020 - 9:16am

"Enbridge has warned that a Line 5 shutdown would threaten Michigan’s energy security, particularly for Upper Peninsula residents who rely upon propane from Line 5 to heat their homes. "

Line 5 passes through Rapid River, a small U.P. town about 20 miles north of Escanaba and 130 miles west of the Straights.

There's a propane manufacturing plant close to Rapid River that extracts propane from what's flowing through Line 5. Propane can be extracted from both oil and natural gas.

If the Straights crossing is shutdown, Line 5 still goes to Rapid River and the extraction plant is still there. What's stopping the propane extraction process from continuing, particularly extraction from natural gas that can be delivered through this pipe, natural gas that can also be used to heat the U.P.?

I call BS
Tue, 11/17/2020 - 10:35am

Exactly!

Alex Sagady
Tue, 11/17/2020 - 5:20pm

>>>>>>If the Straights crossing is shutdown, Line 5 still goes to Rapid River and the extraction plant is still there. What's stopping the propane extraction process from continuing, particularly extraction from natural gas that can be delivered through this pipe, natural gas that can also be used to heat the U.P.?

A shutdown of Line 5 at the Mackinac Straits means a shutdown of the entire Line 5 pipeline from Superior
WI to Sarnia, Ontario. It is neither technically feasible nor practical for pieces of Line 5 to operate
after shut down in the Mackinac Straits.

No natural gas is transported on Line 5....that is a false claim.

The fractionation process at Rapid River cannot operate without having a disposition
of non-propane liquid fractions left over from the natural gas liquids (NGL) that
are input to the fractionator, which are presently transmitted to Sarnia.
Line 5 itself at a 30 inch line with capacity for 540,000
barrels of hydrocarbon liquids per day will be unable to operate at very low
throughput volumes, either up-stream or downstream from the Mackinac Straits.

DS
Mon, 11/16/2020 - 9:22am

Wouldn't it be more productive to work with Enbridge on getting the tunnel built faster?
Stop all of the lawsuits and allegations. Instead focus on getting a much better solution in place quicker.

Climate Chaos
Tue, 11/17/2020 - 10:38am

No, it's an outdated dirty dangerous energy source. Time to wean from the fossil fuel teat.

Unrealistic
Tue, 11/17/2020 - 5:28pm

It is utterly unrealistic to think we will not use fossil fuels. Wean off? How? There is no viable alternative to fossil fuels that are economically realistic. There is no clean alternative.

“No comment “
Mon, 11/16/2020 - 9:33am

Governor Whitmer made no comment in the cost of her order to the people of the Upoer Peninsula. 87% of our propane comes from line 5, we will remember that Whitmer dies not care about northern Michigan!

Ha ha
Tue, 11/17/2020 - 10:40am

Free market competition solves those problems. Aren't you a believer in capitalism, lib socialist?

Capitalism
Tue, 11/17/2020 - 5:39pm

Capitalism revolves around supply and demand. The demand will not diminish yet the supply will be reduced (by approximately 67%) thus the price will increase. The propane will be delivered one way or the other but now it will be the higher risk, more expensive way. Whitmer does not care about the people in the Upper Peninsula!

Andrew Paterson
Mon, 11/16/2020 - 9:40am

It means delay in the solution to the problem.

Mariam H
Tue, 11/17/2020 - 10:42am

Only if you don't see a spill as a problem. The line is already leaking in various places, the company has a history of lying.

DW Stiles
Mon, 11/16/2020 - 10:40am

who are Public Sector Consultants? Who are they representing? How neutral are they in this discussion/conflict?

Lobby THIS!
Wed, 11/18/2020 - 12:00am

Sounds like they work for Enbridge and its minions are dutifully posting their usual talking points here.

Ypsilanti
Mon, 11/16/2020 - 3:01pm

I'm curious about how the shutdown at the straits would impact the UP's propane supply. If one of the two pipelines carries propane currently, then it could still carry propane up to the crossing point. And while the volume of propane meant for just the UP would be lower than what the line currently carries, there would also be lower costs associated with not maintaining a pipeline underwater. So where is the harm - or what is the net effect - to the UP if the pipeline shuts down somewhere north of the water's edge?

Rod Carlozzi
Mon, 11/16/2020 - 4:31pm

Now is not the time to put thousands more out of work on a speculation of what could happen. The refineries provide chemicals that make masks for our health care workers not to mention the fuel that gets them and emergency services to work. The longer this goes on in court delays a new safer pipeline which i am sure is the intention of the Whitmer administration. I believe her slogan was to just fix the Damm roads well you need refineries for that. Once again now is not the time for change with no alternative.

Fix the damn minds
Tue, 11/17/2020 - 10:46am

Rod, just the opposite, more people would have more jobs trucking the fuel, shipping the fuel, etc. Few people are employed with a neglected line, especially given the disastrous possible consequences of a major spill. Also competition would bring down the fuel costs. You lobbyists will be the only ones out of work.

Ethan
Mon, 11/16/2020 - 8:15pm

Considering the fact that interstate pipelines are regulated by Congress at the federal level, and not at the state level, I don’t see this action succeeding.

Mitchell
Tue, 11/17/2020 - 10:48am

We the People believe in STATE RIGHTS.

Vince Caruso
Mon, 11/16/2020 - 10:38pm

Some of the pipeline strikes were from Embride's own boats, it has been reported! The owner can't event avoid it's own pipeline is very telling about it's technical abilities.

Public Trust is a very important protection for irreplaceable natural systems, like the greatest known clean fresh water resource in the solar system. Worth much more than oil, and increasing by the day.

Anonymous
Tue, 11/17/2020 - 1:33am

Poor planning on Enbridge's part. If the pipeline is so important, a tunnel would have been built and already operating when the original 50 year period ended. Not another Kalamazoo river debacle! One and done.

jonsnana
Tue, 11/17/2020 - 9:06am

What it means is that the governor is having another tantrum.

Thank God!
Tue, 11/17/2020 - 10:49am

About protecting our drinking water?

It means
Tue, 11/17/2020 - 10:33am

It means we are a sovereign nation and Canada should invest in running it's lines through Canada. Don't we import enough Canadian trash?

Matt
Tue, 11/17/2020 - 1:23pm

This isn't about saving the Great lakes, it's about strangling the petroeum industry, otherwise she'd be cheerleading for them to get the tunnel done as fast as possible and not resorting to distracting them from that project. Gota love leftists though , I noticed that her husband wasn't asking to get his sailboat or kayak out of storage and I'm sure he wasn't going to pull it away with his EV.

Wrong!
Tue, 11/17/2020 - 11:56pm

This is about saving the Great lakes AND strangling the petroleum industry. Both are important. The imminent problem is that Line 5 leaks and is not safe, just like when Enbridge wrecked havoc on the Kalamazoo river, the worse inland oil spill in the lower 48 states ever. Line 5 must be shut down ASAP. The governor is very generous, and taking big risks, to give everyone until the end of the heating season to find alternative fuel options for next year. Shutting down this dangerous Line 5 is long overdue.

Doug L
Tue, 11/17/2020 - 4:44pm

I have no question that Line 5 is dangerous and should be shut down. My question is, why is there such opposition to a tunnel? It appears to me that this would eliminate the possibility of a leak into the straights while continuing the flow of oil and natural gas. Is the opposition only to help force a turn from oil and gas to greener fuels? Or am I missing something. I will mention that our electrical generating plants are currently switching from coal to greener natural gas. Is it reasonable to now partially close the supply of natural gas?

Concerned Canadian
Tue, 11/17/2020 - 6:19pm

The Line 5 has not had a major incident since 1953. The line is being replaced to make it safer. If this line is cut off the supply to Ontario is also cut off causing a major economic impact on the refineries and petrochemical sites in Sarnia.

Tim Janssen
Wed, 11/25/2020 - 7:17pm

Let's just hope Line 5 is shutdown before a disaster strikes. Enbridge should be banned from ever doing business in Michigan again.