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Enbridge to Whitmer: Nope, we’re not shutting down Line 5

Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
A sign at an Enbridge site in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

The Canadian company Enbridge Energy refuses to shut down Line 5 and has asked a federal judge to dismiss the demands of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer to turn off the crude oil and natural gas liquids dual pipeline that spans the Straits of Mackinac, the stretch of water which connects Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

Last November, Governor Whitmer notified Enbridge it was revoking and terminating the 1953 easement allowing a pipeline to sit on the bottom of the Straits for “violation of the public trust doctrine, given the unreasonable risk that continued operation of the dual pipelines poses to the Great Lakes.”

The statement went on to say the termination was due to Enbridge’s “persistent and incurable violations of the easement’s terms and conditions.”

Enbridge argues the State of Michigan has no authority to shut down its pipeline. It says the federal Pipeline Safety Act preempts Michigan’s attempt to invoke its own safety standards or to take action to shut down Line 5.

Enbridge’s response to the governor was careful to note that the state fails to specify any existing violations of the easement terms that would justify termination.

“Enbridge is meeting all of its commitment to the state,” said Ryan Duffy, spokesman for Enbridge.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
An Enbridge chase boat heads out to inspect a cargo freighter to see whether it's dragging an anchor or line that could damage Line 5.

It is now in compliance with putting in pipeline supports that were damaged or missing, repairing damaged or deteriorating protective coatings on the pipelines, and taking precautions against future anchor strikes after ships dragging anchors twice hit the pipelines (see more on that here).

The State has charged that Enbridge has not reported those damages to Line 5 in a timely manner, taking weeks or months before notifying state officials.

In November, Gretchen Whitmer noted that the demand to revoke the 1953 easement does not prevent Enbridge from continuing to seek the necessary legal approvals to construct a tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac.

Enbridge and the Rick Snyder administration agreed a tunnel for the pipeline would solve the problem of the risk of the now nearly 68 year old pipeline spilling oil into the Great Lakes.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
A barge doing work on Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac.

“We remain very much committed to continuing to operate and remain committed to the Great Lakes tunnel project,” Duffy said.

The risk until Line 5 is shut down or the tunnel is completed is a crude oil spill which one study predicted could mean oil washing up on Michigan shores on both the Lake Michigan side and Lake Huron side of the state.

Environmental groups used strong language to protest Enbridge’s refusal to shut down Line 5.

The organization Oil & Water Don’t Mix responded,“The Canadian oil transport giant’s desperate attempt to weaponize the United States federal courts and bludgeon Michigan with an army of corporate lawyers is a delay tactic that will ultimately fail.”

Mike Shriberg, the Great Lakes Regional Executive Director for the National Wildlife Federation, said, “This is a desperate move by Enbridge Energy to keep its dangerous pipeline posing an unacceptable risk to the Great Lakes and the communities, jobs, drinking water, and wildlife dependent on them. Enbridge know it has a weak case because it relies on trying to take away Michigan’s ability to protect its own waters.”

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Looking at the 'Mighty Mac' bridge from the Upper Peninsula very near Line 5.

A coalition of chambers of commerce, oil and gas industries, construction firms and some labor unions applauded Enbridge’s refusal to comply with the demand to shut down Line 5. The Great Lakes Jobs Coalition issued a statement which included, “Majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents support construction of the Tunnel, believe it is the best solution for Line 5, and want the state to move forward immediately with permitting for the project, according to a recent polling.” (A report indicates more people oppose the tunnel after learning more details.)

The statement said the Great Lakes Tunnel would provide layers of protection and make the chances of an oil lead into the Straits, “…virtually zero.”

But the potential completion of a tunnel is years away and Line 5 still sits on the bottom of the Straits.

As Michigan Radio has reported in the past: That section under the Straits is two 20-inch pipes, four-and-a-half miles long. Even if you shut the valves on either side, there’s close to 388,000 gallons of oil in each pipeline. If both pipelines were damaged, you could see an oil spill nearly as big as the Enbridge Line 6B spill in the Kalamazoo River ten years ago. It was one of the biggest inland oil spills in the country.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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