Carrying oil through the waters of the Straits of Mackinac, the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline is arguably the biggest international, political and environmental issue in the Great Lakes region. Now, with a state-ordered shutdown, rigorous company defenses, debates about acceptable risk, and local jobs at stake, the legal fight involves courts, state politics, and tribal, Canadian and U.S. governments.
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The Battle Over Line 5 Goes International
SEGMENT 1 | Straits of Mackinac; Sarnia, Ontario; Ottawa, Ontario; Lansing, Michigan; Superior, Wisconsin
Under the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron, twin pipelines stretch 4.5 miles across the lakebed and carry more than 20 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids every day. The pipelines are part of Enbridge’s Line 5, the pipeline at the center of one of the biggest political and environmental battles in the Great Lakes.
What started as a state-level issue in Michigan now involves Canadian and U.S. officials in government and the energy industry.
A little history: The state of Michigan granted an easement for the construction and operation of Line 5 in 1953 in a document that requires the pipeline to have a protective outer layer and a maximum distance of 75 feet between supports. The easement includes broader requirements, too.
“The easement mandates that Enbridge needs to exercise the due care of a reasonably prudent person in its operation of the pipeline,” says reporter Kelly House, who has reported on Line 5 for Bridge Michigan. “And, you know, given where the debate over the pipeline is now, the question really is whether or not Enbridge is exercising due care in protecting the Straits from a potential oil spill.”
Line 5 became controversial after another Enbridge pipeline — Line 6b — ruptured in 2010, spilling oil into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River in Marshall, Michigan. Since then, inspections of Line 5’s underwater pipelines have raised concerns about the risk of a spill, especially after the lines were struck by an anchor in 2018. While Enbridge has insisted the pipeline is safe to operate, opposition to Line 5 has grown, and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel have both taken action to shut the pipelines down. Whitmer revoked the pipeline’s 1953 easement in November of 2020, setting a deadline of May 12, 2021 for the oil to stop flowing, but Enbridge has said they will not comply with the order.
As the deadline approaches, the courts, state and federal regulators, and the heads of the U.S. and Canadian federal governments all have a role to play in the resolution.
Here are some other Great Lakes Now stories about pipelines:
- Is the Line 5 tunnel a bridge to Michigan’s energy future or a bad deal?
- Canada Speaks: In Enbridge Line 5 debate, Canadian representatives point to the impact on their economy
- Should future plans for Line 5 consider climate change?
- With Line 5 closure, a ‘game of chicken’ over how to heat Upper Peninsula
- EGLE Permits: Michigan agency approves permits needed for Enbridge tunnel project
- Michigan tribe seeks cultural property protection in path of Line 5 project
WATCH: Turtles vs. Oil
WATCH: Line 5 Archive
WATCH: Enbridge Line 5 Update Segment – July 2019
WATCH: Beneath the Surface
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The Great Lakes Now Series is produced by Rob Green and Sandra Svoboda.