Whitmer orders Enbridge Line 5 shutdown, citing easement violations

(file photo)


Following a state review that found the Line 5 petroleum pipeline is putting the Great Lakes at risk, Michigan has ordered Canadian petroleum company Enbridge Energy to shut down the pipeline that runs through the Straits of Mackinac by May.

The Friday announcement followed a long-awaited review of Enbridge’s compliance with a 1953 state easement that allows Enbridge to operate its pipeline in the Straits.

A state's statement said Enbridge has committed “persistent and incurable” easement violations, prompting Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to notify Enbridge it must permanently stop operating the dual-span pipeline within 180 days. Separately, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel has filed a lawsuit asking the Ingham County Circuit Court to terminate the easement.

    “Enbridge has imposed on the people of Michigan an unacceptable risk of a catastrophic oil spill in the Great Lakes that could devastate our economy and way of life,” Whitmer said in a statement. “That’s why we’re taking action now, and why I will continue to hold accountable anyone who threatens our Great Lakes and fresh water.” 

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

    In its own statement Friday afternoon, Enbridge said it is reviewing the matter and plans “a more thorough response through the legal process.” A company spokesman did not immediately respond to a question about whether Enbridge plans to comply with the state order.

    In its statment, Enbridge also accused the state of failing “to engage” the company in its easement review, which the company contends violates an agreement between the state and Enbridge. 

    Vern Yu, the company’s executive vice president and president of liquids pipelines, called the state’s notice and the DNR report “a distraction from the fundamental facts.”

    “Line 5 remains safe, as envisioned by the 1953 Easement, and as recently validated by our federal safety regulator,” Yu wrote. “We will continue to focus on the safe operation of the dual Line 5 pipelines at the Straits of Mackinac, ensuring the Great Lakes are protected while also reliably delivering the energy that helps to fuel Michigan’s and the region’s economy.”

    State officials found that the easement violates the public trust doctrine, and the risk of an oil spill 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.” 

    The state cited recent anchor strikes that damaged Line 5 as evidence of the risk, along with concerns that the pipeline has “structural problems.” 

    Nessel’s lawsuit seeks the court's declaration that the state properly revoked the easement and an injunction to shut Line 5 down within 180 days and permanently decommission the pipeline. 

    Among additional violations, the state alleges: Enbridge ignored pipeline support requirements “for virtually the entire time the Easement has been in place” by allowing spans more than 75 feet long to hang unsupported by the lakebed or an artificial support structure. Enbridge also failed to ensure the pipeline is properly coated, at times resulting in “bare metal” that was not immediately fixed. The state also alleges that bends in the pipe raise concerns about its structural integrity. 

    These issues cannot be corrected, the state alleges, and thus a shutdown is the only remedy available to the state. 

    The 67-year-old pipeline, which transports up to 540,000 barrels daily of crude oil and natural gas from Wisconsin to Ontario through the Straits of Mackinac, has been a political flashpoint for years because of concerns that a rupture would cause a catastrophic oil spill in the Straits. 

    Public concern about its safety emerged in the wake of the 2010 Kalamazoo River Oil spill, in which a rupture on another Enbridge-owned line sent more than 840,000 gallons of crude oil streaming into the Kalamazoo River. 

    Repeated anchor strikes along Line 5 heightened concerns, prompting an agreement during then-Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration that granted Enbridge permission to replace the current pipelines with new pipe encased in a tunnel deep beneath the lakebottom. That decision has since produced more litigation over the company’s plan to construct the tunnel. 

    Enbridge opponents, who had long pressured Whitmer to revoke the easement, met Friday’s announcement with cheers. 

    “It has been a long time coming,” said Beth Wallace, a Great Lakes partnerships manager with the National Wildlife Federation. 

    “We clearly cannot continue to wait up to a decade for an alternative [the proposed tunnel] that could possibly fall on its face at any point,” Wallace said. “This is what has needed to happen, ever since the first anchor strike occurred.”

    Liz Kirkwood, executive director of the water nonprofit For Love of Water, called the news “historic” but warned that the pipeline continues to pose a spill risk.

    “We must remain vigilant until the oil stops flowing for good in May 2021 because Line 5 remains exposed to uncontrollable and powerful forces, including exceptionally strong currents, lakebed scouring, new anchor and cable strikes, and corrosion,” Kirkwood said. “These forces dramatically increase the risk of this elevated, outdated pipeline collapsing and causing the unthinkable: a catastrophic oil spill in the heart of the Great Lakes.”

    The announcement also prompted celebration from Michigan legislators who oppose Line 5, as well as national politicians including Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.

    “Way to go @GovWhitmer!” tweeted Omar, whose state is also debating the merits of a proposed Enbridge pipeline. “Minnesota can follow your lead, it’s time.”

    Whitmer campaigned for governor in 2018 in part on a promise to shut down Line 5, but had signaled no concrete plans to do so since taking office. However, the state’s relationship with Enbridge has grown increasingly strained in recent months after Enbridge refused to cooperate with state officials following an announcement in June that the pipeline had sustained “significant damage” from what appeared to be an anchor strike.

    In the wake of the incident, Enbridge briefly shut down the pipeline, then resumed operations on one of the line’s two legs without first seeking permission from the state. The company claimed it didn’t need state permission because it answers to the federal government, not the state. 

    That prompted Nessel, the attorney general, to obtain a restraining order that partially shut down the pipeline for months. The order was connected to a broader suit in which Nessel seeks to void the 1953 easement. 

    Wallace predicted Enbridge will fight Friday’s decision “in every way they can.” 

    Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, said someone from Whitmer’s office alerted him to the move just minutes before it was announced by press release. He called the news a “political stunt” that he doubts it will be successful. 

    “If this was truly something that would have worked, they would have done it last year,” Schmidt said. “I think this is, again, another Hail Mary distraction from working on not just the COVID pandemic response, but working with the Legislature on a variety of other policy fronts.”

    It’s unclear what the shutdown announcement means for Enbridge’s tunnel plan. On Friday, Enbridge said it “remains committed” to the project.

    Enbridge has applied for state and federal permits to build the tunnel, and the Michigan Public Service Commission is weighing whether to let the company move the pipeline inside the tunnel, should it be built. 

    Enbridge has repeatedly said it hopes to begin tunnel construction next year and finish building the tunnel by 2024, but that timeline has become increasingly unrealistic given the myriad hurdles the company must clear before breaking ground. 

    Related Line 5 stories:

    Enbridge has frequently countered calls to shut down the pipeline with dire predictions that a shutdown would strand Upper Peninsula residents who heat their homes with propane from Line 5 and imperil regional refineries that use oil from the pipeline. 

    Schmidt, whose senate district stretches from Traverse City in lower northern Michigan to Sault Ste. Marie in the Upper Peninsula, shares those concerns. 

    So does state Rep. Beau LaFave, R-Iron Mountain and a frequent Whitmer critic. He said U.P. propane prices “will increase by four to six times” if the revocation sticks. 

    “The vast majority (of residents) can afford to heat their homes right now, but if the governor wins — which I don’t think she will — they’re going to be reliant on the government instead of themselves, and that’s not how we want to operate up here.”

    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. 

    Concerns over the potential impact of a Line 5 shutdown prompted Whitmer last year to form a task force charged with identifying alternative modes of getting propane to the Upper Peninsula. The task force offered 14 recommendations, such as exploring options for increasing propane storage in Michigan and expanding rail transport options. 

    Eric Pardini, director of Public Sector Consultants who led a study that helped the task force form its conclusions, said the state’s decision to time the shutdown for next spring mitigates concerns about a disruption in propane supply. 

    May is the end of the winter heating season, he noted, so suppliers and distributors will have months to find alternative transportation modes before propane demand spikes in the fall. 

    “It seems like there was some careful thought about how we do this in a timeframe that allows us to prepare,” Pardini said.

    Pardini’s study concluded that all alternative means of meeting the UP’s propane needs, such as rail transport, would likely cost more money than Line 5. But in many cases it was “close to cost parity,” he said. 

    Less certain, he said, is whether it’s possible to shift to other delivery means in a short time frame. It’s also unclear whether such a shift would lead to “market disruptions” elsewhere in Michigan, he said.

    The task force did not consider the economic impacts of a shutdown on the region’s oil industry. Pardini said he has fielded concerns from Southeast Michigan and Ohio oil refiners who process Line 5 petroleum into jet fuel for airports in Detroit and elsewhere. 

    Phil Flynn, senior energy analyst at The PRICE Futures Group in Chicago, called Whitmer’s announcement “a warning call to the energy industry.”

    That the announcement was made shortly after Joe Biden was pronounced to have won the presidential race is notable, he said. Biden made climate change a key priority during his campaign, and has promised to phase out oil. 

    Whitmer, a vocal Biden supporter who was an early contender to be his running mate, in September announced plans to make Michigan carbon-neutral by 2050. Line 5 opponents had openly wondered how Michigan could follow through on that plan while allowing the pipeline to continue operating.

    The announcement in Michigan, Flynn said, is likely just the start of a “much tougher regulatory environment” ahead for the nation’s petroleum industry.

    Sen. Schmidt said Michigan should hold Enbridge accountable for any safety failures to make sure the company is operating Line 5 in a safe manner, but “we can’t go back to the days of putting it all on barges and tankers and tracker trailers and rail cars. Pipelines have been shown to be the safest way to go.”

    The Michigan Chamber of Commerce also railed against the shutdown news, warning that it would imperil jobs in the oil industry and endanger Michigan’s energy independence. 

    “‘Shut down line 5’ is a great bumper sticker and campaign slogan,” said Rich Studley, president and CEO of the Chamber. “It’s crappy energy policy and damaging to our state’s economic future.” 

    But Line 5 opponents counter that decommissioning the pipeline will create jobs tied to removing the pipeline from the water. And the pipeline’s continued operation imperils “millions” of jobs that depend upon the Great Lakes, Wallace said, along with drinking water used by many in Michigan.

    “It really isn’t comparable, in my mind,” she said. 

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    Save the Lakes
    Fri, 11/13/2020 - 2:41pm

    Thank you! We get our drinking water from those Great Lakes!

    Fri, 11/13/2020 - 2:44pm

    "Cheap fuel" isn't so cheap when you consider the unseen costs.

    Fri, 11/13/2020 - 2:44pm

    What part of the public trust document does Line 5 violate? Is the public trust document part of law?
    How will all of that oil and gas flow if Line 5 is shut down?
    Seems like only one side of the story.

    Fri, 11/13/2020 - 3:10pm

    Wayne Schmidt calls the governor's actions a stunt. That from the guy who helped the contractor for Traverse City's splash pad dodge engineering requirements, which made the pad prone to sewage backups. Which is why Schmidt is known as the father of the city's Poop Pad.

    Fri, 11/13/2020 - 7:57pm

    The corrosion and coating issues are red herrings. Both Line 5 pipes under the Straits are protected by impressed current cathodic protection (ICCP) systems.

    Given their wall thickness and the ICCP, neither coating failures or corrosion will affect these pipes over geological time.

    Herd mentality
    Sun, 11/15/2020 - 1:07pm

    So now conservatives think that this pipe is able to stand not just a human life, or human historical time......but also geological time? Is this, like, the 9th wonder of the World?

    Where do you people come from and what school do you attend?

    The rest of us would like to know where to stay away from.

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

    Registered professional engineer in Michigan. Worked on several pipelines, starting with the Alyeska welding and quality control contracts in the 1970's after I graduated as a metallurgical engineer. Did lots of corrosion studies for infrastructure and automotive manufacturers. Still do some corrosion and welding studies for select clients, but nothing for Enbridge - ever.

    Electrocathodically protected steel has an essentially infinite lifespan in a fresh water environment. Why steel is such a popular engineering material.

    Herd mentality
    Tue, 11/17/2020 - 6:47pm

    Well, looking further into this, I see this process was developed in the early to mid 1800's.


    Hazardous product pipelines are routinely protected by a coating supplemented with cathodic protection. An impressed current cathodic protection system (ICCP) for a pipeline consists of a DC power source, often an AC powered transformer rectifier and an anode, or array of anodes buried in the ground (the anode groundbed).

    And since this process has only been being used for 170 years, how can you claim it will outlast my grand kids, let alone the rest of the century? How long does it take for this protective layer to lose protection, and does marine growth effect it? Does anchor damage?

    And that has nothing to do with steel being such a popular engineering material. Steel was that before we started using it the water, we had to develop tech to use it in the water.

    How many relics are still working from the last 150+ years with this technology? You could show us proof. I looked. Couldn't find any.

    Wed, 11/18/2020 - 2:22pm

    Calculus is your friend. You can calculate durations from rates. Think astronomy. As the rate goes to zero, the duration becomes infinite. As the rates go infinite, the duration becomes infinitesimal. None of this will be observed to completion in a human lifespan, or the the life of human society. You have to rely on estimates or go home without solving the problem.

    There are cathodic protection schemes which rely on coatings impregnated with cathodic species, but it is not necessary. ICCP works quite well with just a power source. It will protect a clean steel surface.

    The reason you won’t find ancient examples of ICCP is its dependence on electric current generation. Commercial electric current generation is less than 200 years old, hence ICCP is younger than that. So we have to estimate life from corrosion rates. So far, those estimates closely track corrosion measurements. And we can adjust corrosion rates by adjusting cathodic current. There are few natural systems this well behaved.

    Mon, 11/16/2020 - 1:01pm

    Yes, and the Titanic was 'unsinkable' yet sank on its maiden voyage... It's called human hubris, folks, We don't seem to read about history or learn from it.

    Karen Dunnam
    Fri, 11/13/2020 - 11:16pm

    I used to work in leasing for the wireless industry.
    When the original 1953 easement documents were first published, I read them, then looked for an addendum extending the term of the agreement.
    If Enbridge never renewed the original lease, it has expired.

    Mon, 11/16/2020 - 1:02pm

    Thank you. The GOP will ignore this.

    Walking on Sunshine
    Sat, 11/14/2020 - 8:43am

    I know an easy fix to the problem. Stop the line in the UP just before it enters the straits. Then everyone in the UP can get the fuel they want or need and there will be no spills in our Great Lakes, a world treasure. Problem solved. Oh, but then Enbridge can't use and abuse Michigan as a conduit from one place in Canada to another place in Canada? To say it nicely, too bad, Enbridge, find another way, it's not our problem.

    BTW Elections have consequences and lest we forget we flipped the Michigan Supreme Court too!

    Sat, 11/14/2020 - 9:03am

    Can someone please explain how Line 5 petroleum translates to Upper Peninsula propane gas availability?

    middle of the mit
    Sun, 11/15/2020 - 1:12pm

    They also run propane along with a few other things in that pipe with the oil.

    The only reason they say it will cost more for LP in the UP is because they aren't smart enough to turn the line in the UP before it crosses the straights into a big propane tank and continue on just like they have been for decades. Oh. They are smart enough, they are just devious and this is how they use Moar Fear to get people to do what they want them to do.

    Haven't ya heard how gas is going to go up to over $10 a gallon and you won't be able to heat your house because Joe was elected? They said the same thing about Obama.

    Sat, 11/14/2020 - 9:10am

    This is great news! It was just a matter of time until this pipeline started leaking and destroyed our water supply and the economy of Michigan.

    Sat, 11/14/2020 - 9:23am

    The Governor and anyone supporting this decision is a hypocrite if they use or benefit from any petroleum products. The people of the UP will remember this every time we pay more for propane!!

    Sat, 11/14/2020 - 10:21am

    Bravo, Big Gretch - you gave Enbridge just enough rope to hang themselves .
    May the Great Lakes and other Michigan waterways thrive and remain beautiful!

    Sat, 11/14/2020 - 10:53am

    I've never seen two people so fixated on something as Whitmer and Nessel. All other inputs seem to be ignored and solutions to place the pipeline in a tunnel drilled into bedrock deep below the lake bottom are fought with a single-minded approach. If the pipeline is in a dry tunnel, there won't be any lake strikes. There will be the ability to do a more thorough inspection as the inspector is in a lighted, dry tunnel unencumbered by the cold and darkness of the water depths. And if the pipe does rupture in the tunnel, all the oil will be contained. Oh, and the jobs generated in building the tunnel will be a boost to the economy, but democrats don't care if people are working.

    Build the tunnel now. We have seen what happens when republicans get roadblocks out of the way and do things at warp-speed. Vaccines discovered by Michigan companies appear. Let Enbridge concentrate on building a tunnel.

    Sat, 11/14/2020 - 12:10pm

    Bravo. Enbridge cannot be trusted. They've lied over and over and gloss over everything.
    To those Enbridge enthusiasts: Tell us how much insurance Enbridge has against a spill. Tell us how much and with whom and what is the entity that 'owns' the pipeline (I suspect it's NOT Enbridge but some LLC somewhere - Canada?).

    Mon, 11/16/2020 - 1:04pm

    Crickets. Still waiting for the Enbridge fans to tell us. No insurance company is that stupid to insure this kind of absurd risk with a company like Enbridge.

    Vince Caruso
    Sat, 11/14/2020 - 12:24pm

    Pipeline in our freshwater Great Lakes supporters talk about economics but ignore the economics of a massive oil spill in our Great Lakes. What is good for the Goose is good for the Gander.
    A spill has been shown to be catastrophic to the region.
    But that does not even consider the effect on the natural systems of the region.
    We have an obligation to protect these invaluable natural systems for us and future generations, and for all the living organisms that rely on it as well.
    Clean fresh water is the new most valuable thing in America supplanting fossil fuels.

    Gary Lea
    Sat, 11/14/2020 - 7:38pm

    Keep and refine that stuff in Canada.