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Why the Line 5 issue should concern everyone

By Stacy Gittleman

Displayed on license plates and travel websites, perhaps the most emblematic symbol of Michigan’s connection to the Great Lakes is the Mackinac Bridge. Below the span that is nearly 30,000 feet long churns the clear blue waters of the Straits of Mackinac. The waters feature dramatic temperature fluctuations and turbulent currents ten times the power of Niagara Falls that push water back and forth between Lakes Michigan and Huron.

According to the Great Lakes Commission, these five inland seas, boasting 4,530 miles of coastline, constitute 21 percent of the entire planet’s fresh surface water. They provide drinking water and sustenance to 48 million people in the Great Lakes Basin and provide the backbone for a $6 trillion regional economy that would be one of the largest in the world if it stood alone as a country. Overall, the churning currents of the Straits of Mackinac provide water for millions of Michigan residents and is a critical wildlife habitat of fish, fowl, and other native species. For Michiganders, it is a part of our natural heritage, a place to vacation, hike and explore.

The waters of Lakes Huron and Michigan, and its stewardship, according to government and environmental officials, is part of the public trust of the people of Michigan. But deep in that water rests an aging threat that has the potential to cause one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history: the Enbridge Line 5 easement.

Since Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order on November 21, 2020, to terminate operation of the easement of Enbridge Line 5 by May 21, 2021, Michigan has been embroiled in a legal battle with energy transport giant Enbridge to keep it open. Every province leader in Canada has written to Whitmer to reverse her decision because they purport that thousands of Canadian jobs are on the line and the closure could result in a trade war between the two countries. Canadians have even called upon Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to evoke a 1977 agreement between President Jimmy Carter and Trudeau’s father, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, which put limits on transit pipeline actions that may harm energy supply in either country.

Additionally, Whitmer’s order to cease operations of Line 5 does not cancel the $500 million deal the former Governor Rick Snyder administration made with Enbridge to drill and build a concrete tunnel submerged 100 feet into the bedrock of the straits to house a Line 5 replacement tunnel to pump fossil fuels for the next century. On January 29, Michigan Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) granted Enbridge a wastewater permit, and on February 4, the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority, charged to oversee the construction and operation of Enbridge's Line-5 tunnel project, approved additional structural engineering contracts for the project. The construction and oversight when completed will be under the auspices of the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority. Enbridge will use its own funds to build and maintain the tunnel for the duration of its life.

Beginning in 1949, Canadian-based Enbridge Energy built an oil pipeline infrastructure network 17,127 miles across North America, including 8,627 miles in the United States, and 8,500 miles in Canada.

Line 5 is part of Enbridge’s 645-mile-long Lakehead network, which carries up to 540,000 barrels – or 22.68 million gallons – including light crude oil, light synthetic crude, and natural gas liquids (NGLs), which are refined into propane per day from western Canada to refineries in the United States and Ontario. It begins in Superior, Wisconsin, and runs to Sarnia, Ontario, traversing parts of northern Michigan and Wisconsin. Some Michigan drilling companies use Line 5 to transport the oil they produce. That product is introduced into the pipeline at Lewiston, Michigan.

In 1953, Enbridge constructed a 4.5-mile twin easement of Line 5 that splits into twin, 20-inch pipelines and runs along the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac. Back then, cars had fins and gasoline cost 29 cents a gallon. The country was three years shy of President Dwight Eisenhower passing the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 which made way for the Interstate Highway system and revved up America’s car culture.

While manufacturers, downstate business owners and some in the Upper Peninsula assert that keeping Line 5 running is vital to Michigan’s energy infrastructure, scientists and environmentalists, and now the executive branch of Michigan’s state government, say Enbridge is in violation of environmental and safety regulations and it is just a matter of time before the pipe ruptures.

If one wants to understand the potential hazard in the Straits, it is helpful to back up about a decade to a disaster that occurred in a different part of Michigan along another Enbridge pipeline. In July of 2010, Enbridge Line 6B ruptured and leaked along the Kalamazoo River in Marshall, spilling one million gallons of crude oil into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River. This disaster prompted the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in 2012 to release its comprehensive document Sunken Hazard. Extensively researched by NWF’s Jeff Alexander and Beth Wallace, Sunken Hazard revealed that Enbridge had more than 800 spills in North America between 1999 and 2010, dumping nearly 6.8 million gallons of oil. Though there has never been a spill in the portion of Line 5 that passes under the Straits, the report documented 33 spills since 1968 along Line 5 in Wisconsin and Michigan involving 1.1 million gallons. According to the report, only one of those spills was discovered by Enbridge’s leak detection systems.

“We have to look no further than the Enbridge Line 6B disaster, and Enbridge’s slow remediation and cleanup response, and the nuisance it inflicted on the neighbors who lived along 6B, to understand why Line 5 is a ticking time bomb,” said David Schwab, retired environmental scientist with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and leader of one of the most comprehensive studies to examine what an oil spill in the Straits would entail.

In 2016, the Water Center at the University of Michigan released a study led by Schwab, who ran over 800 computer model scenarios to predict what would happen should Line 5 rupture under the Straits. Schwab studied how the Great Lakes would be impacted should Line 5 leak 5,000, 10,000 or 25,000 barrels of oil. He came to one stark conclusion: the Straits of Mackinac is the worst place in the world for an oil spill.

“If a spill were to happen anywhere else in the Great Lakes, it would move offshore and be dispersed before it could have an impact on beaches or wildlife,” explained Schwab. “But if Line 5 ruptures, the strong currents could take the spill and damage and has a variable of 700 miles of United States and Canadian shoreline along Lake Huron and Lake Michigan.”

Schwab concluded that a spill of 25,000 gallons would cause environmental degradation to more than 150 miles of shoreline. At highest risk are areas considered Pure Michigan for their natural beauty and the economic powerhouse of tourism dollars they bring in. They include the Bois Blanc Islands, Mackinaw City and its adjacent shorelines, and areas on the north shore of the Straits near the Mackinac Bridge. Communities at risk also include Beaver Island, Cross Village, Harbor Springs, Cheboygan, and other areas of Lake Huron-Michigan.

The Water Center study also revealed that more than 15 percent of Lake Michigan’s open water (3,528 square miles) and nearly 60 percent of Lake Huron’s open water (13,611 square miles) could be affected. For those of us living in southeast Michigan, Line 5 is not just some issue Up North, because a spill or rupture would potentially greatly impact our water supply, which is tied to the waters of Lake Huron.

Just as environmental groups praised Whitmer and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel for their efforts to close Line 5 and seek alternative methods and sources to deliver energy to the state, they scorned EGLE for approving a permit application for Enbridge to dispose of millions of gallons of treated wastewater into the Straits for the construction of that tunnel.

Scott Dean, EGLE’s strategic communications advisor, said that the state environmental agency approved the permit to treat any wastewater stemming from the construction of Line 5 because Enbridge would adequately treat wastewater according to laws and statutes set out by the state legislature. The project still must meet approval by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as well as the Michigan Public Service Commission.

According to Dean, there is no statutory mechanism to factor in climate change when making such decisions.

“EGLE’s decision to approve the wastewater permit to Enbridge illuminates several related policy issues,” said Dean. “That being said, the basis of EGLE’s decision is required to be limited to compliance with relevant environmental statutes as they are created by the state legislature. EGLE is not allowed to factor in (climate change) when we are applying the statutes of the law. Our review shows that the construction of the proposed project could comply with existing state environmental laws as created by the state legislature. And we have issued permits designed to ensure that, if a tunnel is constructed, it would be in strict compliance with the protections that impact our Great Lakes. “

Nicholas J. Schroeck, associate dean of experiential education and director of the environmental law clinic at University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, said the time is here to update environmental laws, many drafted in the 1970’s, and update and address them to take climate change into consideration.

“In the 1970’s, climate change was not on the radar screen for most people, including legislators,” noted Schroeck. “Environmental laws were drafted to focus on things like water pollution from factory pipes, and those laws have done a decent job of cleaning up our Great Lakes, but there is much more work to do. The biggest current threat to the health of our waters is climate change.”

Schroeck said what is needed is comprehensive, national legislation to address climate change. In the meantime, he said the Michigan legislature should move to update state environmental laws to include climate change impacts in permitting and continue to speed transition to renewable energy.

EGLE said that prior to making its Line 5 tunnel wastewater decision, it took into consideration over 2,000 public comments, some expressing concern how the project will exacerbate climate change.

Among the public comments submitted were several from a grassroots environmentalist group based in Traverse City called For the Love of Water, or FLOW. In a written December 15, 2020 statement submitted on behalf of a dozen organizations, including tribal organizations, the Michigan Environmental Council, and the Michigan League of Conservation Voters (MCLV), FLOW expressed concern not only about the fossil fuels the tunnel would deliver but the environmental degradation that the tunnel’s construction could inflict upon the Straits.

FLOW asserted that returning these gallons to the waterway as heated and treated wastewater, along with the project’s use of heavy machinery, bentonite slurry, blasting of bedrock, would threaten to impact or displace fishing, cultural and historic resources, such as traditional cemetery or burial sites of the Odawa and Ojibwe Tribes of Michigan.

The statement, addressed to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, requests that the project be reviewed within the parameters of federal legislation such as the Rivers and Harbors Act, the Clean Water Act, and the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System before finalizing approval for the project.

FLOW has also conducted numerous studies debunking the notion of just how dependent Michiganders in the Upper Peninsula are on Line 5 for fuel.

“Line 5’s products mostly serve Canada, with less than 10 percent of the oil used in Michigan,” said FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood. “The Line 5 easement – essentially a shortcut for Enbridge to move Canadian oil products from their western regions to their eastern refineries, was never intended to be a vital energy source for Michigan. Instead, it threatens the drinking water supply for 5 million Michigan residents, the Pure Michigan tourist economy, and a way of life. It is time for the state of Michigan to evict Enbridge from the Straits of Mackinac and shut down Line 5 because of the oil spill danger to the Great Lakes.”

Environmentalists and others wishing to make way for greener sources of energy and leave the age of fossil fuels in the rear mirror are encouraged by a flurry of recent developments from industry and state and federal governments. On January 20, President Joe Biden in an executive order revoked Calgary-based TC Energy’s Keystone XL’s presidential permit and shut down construction of the controversial pipeline that was to carry oil from Canada to Texas. Biden also re-entered the United States into the Paris Climate accord. On January 27, S&P Global Ratings downgraded its view of the entire oil and gas industry to “moderately high risk,” although recent reports say that oil prices are making their greatest rebound since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Environmentalists say Enbridge’s push to pump petroleum products through a tunnel for the next 99 years – and EGLE’s recent approval of a permit – is out of touch with renewable energy trends and the urgency to slow the ravages of climate change.

Christy McGillivray, political and legislative director for the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club, said the Enbridge tunnel project is something that smacks of a 20th, not 21st Century mindset and works against efforts by Governor Whitmer and Attorney General Nessel to safely keep Line 5 shut.

“EGLE is completely at odds with what our state needs right now,” McGillivray said. “EGLE is saying they are almost obligated to grant Enbridge their permit requests because they say Enbridge has fulfilled the requirements for environmental statutes as they exist. We think that is blatantly false. The conditions that EGLE put in its wastewater and tunnel building permits are basically band-aids, and they do not address the 1.4 million gallons of wastewater that will be going into the Great Lakes during the tunnel construction. The tunnel design and concept are absolutely disastrous. With the S&P downgrading companies like Exxon/Mobil and General Motors and Ford planning to electrify their entire fleet in the next 10 years, why in the world does Michigan need to build onto a fossil fuel infrastructure that will last 99 years? Approving a permit for this tunnel is the worst possible plan.”

Still, Enbridge and manufacturers, business owners and those who need heating fuel in the Upper Peninsula insist Line 5 is still relevant. Proponents for keeping Line 5 open run from manufacturers who see the supplies attained as a lifeblood for Michigan’s manufacturing comeback and those who uphold the pragmatism of supplying residents of the Upper Peninsula with heating propane through the long dark winter.

Enbridge spokesperson Ryan Duffy said the existing Line 5 easement is the most monitored and regulated portion of its entire pipeline system. A proposed replacement pipeline housed under a submerged tunnel deep into the bed of the Straits will make fossil fuel delivery even safer for decades to come, he said.

“There is still a tremendous need for energy in Michigan, and Line 5 has been supplying this and has been in operation since the 1950’s,” Duffy said. “Enbridge will make this supply even safer by putting a tunnel well below the Straits lakebed. We understand the sensitivity and the public trust between Michigan residents and the waters of the Great Lakes, and that is why we have proposed for the construction of a tunnel. Encased in cement and a concrete wall, the chance of any oil getting out into the water is zero.”

Even as it commits to decades more of supplies of fossil fuels, Duffy maintained that Enbridge is increasingly focused on developing renewable energy sources. This includes building 22 wind farms and investing more than $7 billion in renewable energy projects.

“Enbridge is leading the way into the (renewable) transition. At the same time, we are developing ways to safely transport petroleum products and the safest way to do this is through pipelines,” Duffy said.

When asked why Enbridge is still determined to transport under the fragile Straits when there are other lines that run through Michigan, such as Line 78 built to replace 6B, Duffy said that line is at or close to capacity and could not take on an additional 22 million gallons, nor could it accommodate liquid natural gas.

“There has not yet been an incident (of a spill) in the Straits in 65 years and the 100 Michigan employees who work for Enbridge work every day to make sure Line 5 is running safely,” he said.

Underwater incidents affecting the easement in recent years and attorney general Nessel filing a lawsuit in June of 2020 in Ingham County Circuit Court against Enbridge have compelled Enbridge to increase its safety measures.

First, in April 2018, the National Transportation Safety Board reported that an understaffed vessel unknowingly was dragging its starboard anchor and struck the Line 5 dual pipeline, causing one minor dent in one and two minor dents in the other. Both lines were determined to be structurally sound. In June of 2020, Enbridge reported to the state that an underwater support anchor to the pipeline, and not the pipeline itself, was significantly damaged and that a protective pipeline coating near that anchor was deteriorating. Enbridge temporarily shut down the easement for repairs.

The lawsuit settlement in September 2020 resulted in a tenuous agreement between the two parties to add extra layers of safety measures to the twin pipeline and additional monitoring of vessels traveling in the straits. According to Duffy, there is now a multi-layered monitoring system watching over the easement at all times. Enbridge uses computerized modeling systems to monitor pressure, temperature, and other key information from thousands of points along its pipeline network. It uses this data to detect small features in the pipe that may require underwater inspection by a diver or Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV), or that could indicate a leak. Enbridge also deploys two-person teams that are specially trained controllers at its operations center – one directly monitoring, the other supporting – to watch Line 5 for any changes in flow or pressure. There are also remotely operated with automatic shutoff valves, should there be a change in pressure due to a possible leak. Duffy said that there are also trained emergency personnel on hand at all times who also keep in close contact with local emergency authorities.

Michigan Manufacturers Association President John Walsh argued that shutting down Line 5 in May, years before Enbridge can run a replacement line in a subterranean tunnel, would not only curtail Michigan’s manufacturing comeback, but add more carbon to the air by the necessary fleet of trucks needed to transport fuel in the absence of a pipeline.

Walsh is pleased with EGLE’s decision to grant Enbridge a permit towards the tunnel construction. Despite the push towards greener energy sources, Walsh added Michigan’s manufacturing sector cannot sustain itself without the fuel it receives from Line 5.

“We think the proposal for Enbridge to build a tunnel to house Line 5 and EGLE’s initial permit approval to make way for the construction of this tunnel is a good solution,” said Walsh. “In order to accommodate the amount of fuel that is pumped through Line 5, there would have to be thousands of extra trucks on our roads each day. To assemble that kind of fleet of trucks and drivers to transport 22.6 million gallons of fuel per day is a logistical puzzle that has not yet been thought through by the state,” said Walsh.

In some regards, the Whitmer administration is studying what a post Line 5 climate would mean for Michigan’s energy infrastructure and supply. In 2019, Whitmer authorized Executive Order 2019-14 to study alternatives in delivering energy to Michiganders, particularly those who live in the Upper Peninsula, by creating the the Upper Peninsula Energy Task Force (UPETF). Sitting on the UPETF board of this task force serving as a residential rate payer in the UP is Jennifer Hill, commissioner and mayor pro tem of the city of Marquette. A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a master’s degree in environmental planning, Hill’s family has fished the waters of the UP for three generations.

“We were the first generation lucky enough to move up here full time, and when we did, I thought I would concentrate my work studying the quality of water,” said Hill. “As it turns out, our energy issues are far more challenging and require much investigating and improving. The UP’s electricity infrastructure was born from the mining and lumber mills, industries that have reached the end of their life cycle. For our electricity, on average, UPer’s pay 20 cents over the average per kilowatt-hour than the rest of the lower 48.”

Hill and her husband moved to Marquette full time in 2014, where they can see Lake Superior from their 1,800-square-foot home which they heat with propane. According to UPETF, 18 percent of UP households use propane for heating fuel and 58 percent use natural gas.

During her first polar vortex winter of 2014, Hill and other UP residents learned the hard way that the UP needed to ramp up its propane capacity when Enbridge temporarily shut Line 5 to do some repair work that could only be conducted during the most frigid conditions. The disruption of Line 5 eliminated the flow of natural gas liquids (NGLs) to the Rapid River processing facility. While Enbridge claims this amount represents 65 percent of the Upper Peninsula’s propane demands, other groups like FLOW claim that amount is between 35 to 50 percent.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, propane prices in the Midwest have hovered around $1.70 per gallon between 2015-2019, with a small spike in prices in the winter of 2013-2014 to $4 per gallon due to the polar vortex and increased demand from farmers who needed to heat and dry their corn harvest after an unusually wet winter.

After the polar vortex winter of 2014, however, Hill said Marquette diversified its propane supply from other suppliers and increased its capacity storage ability.

As a member of the UPETF task force, she said it is in everyone’s long-term interest to acknowledge that energy consumption habits and sources will change. She is heartened that there is more availability of alternative heating sources such as natural gas, though she knows that natural gas will one day give way to greener energy sources such as wind, solar and geothermal heating.

In April 2020, UPETF submitted a formal report of recommendations. Included were that Michigan utilize its subterranean capacity to store propane in the Lower and Upper Peninsula and that it increase the capacity of its railway system to transport NGLs should Line 5 be terminated.

The report documented that with 585 million gallons of underground storage capacity in salt mine caverns in the Lower Peninsula, Michigan has the third largest propane storage capacity in the country behind Kansas and Texas. The state also has about 12 million gallons of aboveground storage capacity, of which 1.5 million are located in the Upper Peninsula. The report concluded that if all residential and commercial tanks were filled at the beginning of the heating season, it would significantly increase the Upper Peninsula’s reserve margins and buffer it against potential disruptions.

The task force recommended that without Line 5, Michigan would need to invest in more rail delivery points. Increasing movement of propane via rail would require increased storage and transloading equipment. The report stated the capacity of a railcar for shipping natural gas liquids (NGLs) was 33,700 gallons. Assuming that cars would not be filled to 100 percent capacity, the task force estimated that each car would transport 31,500 gallons.

Upon this recommendation, Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) Communications Manager Michael Frezell said the agency recently issued a request for proposal (RFP) for an approximately eight month effort to evaluate current state capabilities to deliver propane by rail and identify rail infrastructure upgrades, including rail-served storage capacity, necessary for improved distribution of propane by rail in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

But transporting petroleum products via rail does not come without risks.

In 2013, a runaway train hauling 72 tankers filled with crude oil derailed as it approached Quebec. The tanker cars exploded, and the oil caught fire, killing 47 people and destroying many buildings in the center of this small town. The derailment led to changes in Canadian rail transport safety rules. According to MDOT, the UP’s rail system is largely serviced by Canadian National Railways. Branch lines run north from Escanaba to the iron range west of Marquette, from Powers to Iron Mountain, and from Trout Lake to Munising via Newberry.

Previous reporting by Downtown newsmagazine has shown that local public safety departments are rarely notified by rail lines when rail cars with flammable or dangerous shipments are traveling through their communities.

The fight between Whitmer, Enbridge, and Canadian government officials will continue to play out in court. On November 13, Attorney General Dana Nessel filed a case against Enbridge in Ingham County Circuit Court citing the Public Trust Doctrine and Enbridge’s repeated violations of the easement. In turn, Vern D Yu, Enbridge vice president for liquids and pipelines, filed a complaint against Whitmer, claiming her order to terminate the easement is “contrary to federal law,” specifically, the Pipeline Safety Act. The letter continued to say that Enbridge will continue to operate the twin pipelines until the Great Lakes tunnel goes into operation and maintains that Enbridge today is in full safety compliance with the law.

Ryan Jarvi, spokesperson for Nessel, said though there is concern about the tunnel construction, efforts now focus on fighting lawsuits to reverse Witmer’s executive order to shut the existing pipeline, which “literally rest beneath one of the busiest shipping channels in the lakes, where they are vulnerable to impacts by foreign objects” such as when the existing pipelines in the Straits were struck by anchors in April 2018 and in June of 2020.

“The Attorney General’s biggest concern surrounding Enbridge Line 5 operating in the state is that a portion of Line 5 that crosses the Straits of Mackinac is present at a location that makes it uniquely unsuitable for oil pipelines and presents an unreasonable risk of catastrophic environmental and economic harm,” said Jarvi. “An oil release at that location would create grave ecological and economic harm not only in the immediate vicinity of the Straits, but elsewhere along the shorelines of Lakes Michigan and Lake Huron.”

Bentley Johnson, senior partnerships manager for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, said Enbridge’s record and the threat of a potential oil spill “forced the hand” of Whitmer to order the closure of Line 5.

Johnson said the MLCV is skeptical that the tunnel can be constructed in Enbridge’s estimate of four to five years. Even if the project gets the go-ahead from state and federal authorities, Johnson said the expected legal battles that will ensue will delay the tunnel project by another decade.

By then, Johnson predicts that consumers will be well on their way to moving on from fossil fuels as seen by industry trends.

“Imagine cutting a ribbon on this tunnel in the year 2035. By then, most new vehicles will not be running on fossil fuels. The way we see it, is that this is a tunnel to nowhere and is a tax-payer liability boondoggle for the people of Michigan. The MLCV commends the work of Governor Whitmer and AG Nessel and will work to continue to educate voters that a Line 5 tunnel is not a solution but instead it is a Pandora’s box of new problems.”


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