Line 5 on Trial
Opponents of the pipeline believe the fight has a new life — and a new argument: climate change.
By Patrick Sullivan | July 11, 2020
Times were different when Line 5 was stretched underwater across the five miles of the Straits of Mackinac in 1953. The project was barely a blip in the news. People were hungry for new sources of energy to fuel their cars and homes. The pipeline existed for decades in a blissful state of anonymity.
Line 5, though, is no longer anonymous.
Over the last decade, most of the concern and criticism of Line 5 has been centered on the aging pipeline’s frailties, worry over its owner’s track record for pipeline safety, and a fear over the threat that the now very old infrastructure poses to the Great Lakes.
There’s no question that a large-scale failure of Line 5 could be devastating to the lakes, but even as the line has been shut down over engineering concerns in recent weeks, some advocacy groups who oppose the pipeline have decided to add a new argument to the case that it should be removed: The fossil fuel carried by the line represents a significant potential to accelerate climate change, just as the people of this state have begun to recognize the consequences of climate failure, events like severe storms, flooding, and extreme heat.
TIME FOR A TRIAL
Environmentalists might have wanted to make climate change part of their argument against Line 5’s existence for years, but until recent events unfolded in Lansing, they couldn’t litigate that argument, said Margrethe Kearney, an attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Center.
What led to their ability to make the case perhaps stemmed from the attention Line 5 got in the news after an eye-opening event in 2018 — an anchor strike that damaged the pipeline. (The pipeline suffered another strike — this one by an unknown object — more recently, leading to its temporary closure in late June.) Soon after the first strike, Enbridge, the Canadian company that owns and operates Line 5, proposed building a tunnel to bury the line and keep it out of harm’s way.
To accomplish that, Enbridge originally argued, they would undertake “minor maintenance,” a mere modification that had been tacitly approved way back when that original permit was issued in 1953.
Advocates challenged that line of reasoning, however, and in late June, the Michigan Public Service Commission sided with Enbridge opponents, finding that a permit for the tunnel would have to go through a full approval process, one that’s expected to take about a year and will involve proceedings much like those that occur in a lawsuit, with evidence, testimony, cross-examination and, in this case, an administrative law judge.
For Kearney, the MPSC’s finding was a turning point, she said, because it essentially means that she and her allies can now put Line 5 and Enbridge on trial.
“That tunnel absolutely cannot be considered some kind of minor maintenance project,” Kearney said. “We said we need a contested case where we can go in and we can ask Enbridge questions. … One of the big things we’re focusing on is climate change — what kind of climate change impact does this project have?”
Kearney said the approval process will enable her and other groups who have joined with her to bring in expert witnesses before the MPSC. That’s because when the commission considers a large-scale project like a tunnel for Line 5, one of the factors they take into account are environmental consequences.
“We need the benefit of having other groups come in and provide information,” Kearney said. “There’s going to be a really serious, hardcore, thorough examination of what this tunnel will mean for the state of Michigan.”
Those effects, she said, would be immediate, such as the carbon cost of the construction itself, and long-term, such as the carbon costs of enabling a fossil fuel pipeline to operate for who-knows-how-long into the future — especially when you consider that in the near future, we might not require as much fossil fuel as we do today.
“We look around us in Michigan these days, and we can see the impacts of climate change,” she said. “If the impacts of climate change are not worth the need for the energy to be brought through this pipeline, then the commission should say no.”
A PIPELINE’S LONG LIFE
The argument that the projected lifespan of Line 5 is too long and therefore should not happen is almost the same argument — albeit in a reverse form — that Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy uses to argue that the tunnel project should go ahead.
According to Duffy, if the potential dangers of Line 5 are shored up so there’s little chance of a catastrophic oil spill in the Straits of Mackinac, then people who are concerned about Michigan’s environment should support the project.
Already, he noted, 23 counties around the area (including Grand Traverse County) have passed ceremonial resolutions in support of the line, along with the Republican-controlled state legislature.
“We’re seeing a lot of support and support building for the project because I think, more and more, it’s a commonsense solution,” Duffy said.
Duffy said he believes the MPSC decision to do a full-blown examination of the permit request will only be a blip and will not delay the project.
“We’re still on top of that, and we expect to start construction next year and finish in 2024,” Duffy said. “I think it’s clear that the pipeline is very much needed in Michigan, as it does supply more than half of the propane used in the state.”
Duffy said Line 5 delivers 65 percent of the propane needed in the Upper Peninsula, and 30 percent of the oil in the line goes to Detroit-area refineries to make gasoline. This argument was echoed in Canada, where the country’s Financial Post recently warned in an article that the shutdown of Line 5 by a Michigan judge would lead to gasoline shortages in Ontario.
Kearney said she doesn’t buy that argument, and that fearmongering over high energy prices is a tired page in Enbridge’s playbook.
“There are short-term impacts on energy markets, and they shift rapidly,” she said. “The impact is going to be largely on a Canadian company that is in Michigan and other states to move fossil fuel from one part of Canada to another part of Canada. I think Enbridge likes to paint the picture that the sky is falling, that the world is going to end. I think that’s wrong.”
Duffy disputes that Line 5 is only critical to Canadian markets, noting that the corporation pays more than $60 million in property taxes to the state of Michigan every year.
BUILD TO THE FUTURE, NOT PRESENT
Jim MacInnes, president and CEO of Crystal Mountain and a clean-energy advocate said that he worries more about Line 5’s potential for an oil spill, given its age and track record, but that he also believes that it is infrastructure that should not be renewed.
“I think we need to ween ourselves off of fossil fuels faster than we are, that’s for sure,” MacInnes said. “We need to start investing in 21st century infrastructure that will support clean energy.”
In order to slow the effects of climate change, we need to re-think how infrastructure is designed. We need to be able to move clean energy around with a modern power grid rather than undertake projects to restore old oil pipes, he said.
“What we need to do is, we basically need to electrify everything we can, and then run it with clean energy,” MacInnes said. “That’s what we need to be doing. … You need to be able to move power all around.”
Liz Kirkwood, the executive director of For Love of Water and one of the central attorneys opposing Enbridge in this case, said questioning the project as a matter of infrastructure is critical.
“We haven’t, as a state, even sat down and asked the question, ‘Do we need Line 5 for our energy future?’ Not ‘Does Enbridge need it?’ but ‘Do we need it?’” Kirkwood said. “We’re going to be asking ourselves the most important public questions, such as, ‘Is there a public need for this type of pipeline?’”
Kirkwood disputes Enbridge’s claims that the Upper Peninsula and the state as a whole rely on energy from Line 5. She cited a 2018 National Wildlife Commission study that found that decommissioning the pipeline would not have huge economic impacts. She said it is time for Line 5 to have its day in court.
“The new phase, as a result of the regulatory approval process, means for the first time, Line 5 opponents will be able to question Enbridge officials under oath,” Kirkwood said.
Director of the Michigan Climate Action Network Kate Madigan said her organization, along with Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, signed on to the effort to oppose Line 5 on the basis of climate, in part, because of the 99-year extension of life the tunnel would automatically receive if approved.
Northern Michigan is already seeing the impacts of climate change, and they are not good, she said.
“Five-hundred-year storms are happening every few years,” Madigan said. “It would be great if we could not think about climate change while we worry about all this other stuff, but we have waited too long already.”
ENBRIDGE: WE'RE ALREADY ON BOARD
Duffy, the Enbridge spokesman, doesn’t think the climate change argument against the tunnel is valid. The tunnel will ensure the safety of the line, he said, and, anyway, Enbridge is already on board with clean energy.
“Enbridge has invested heavily in renewable energy,” he said. “We recognize that we are transitioning, and we need to transition.”
He said they’ve built wind farms across the country.
The tunnel, he said, makes for the safest way to distribute all of those carbon energies for as long as we need them.
“As far as the tunnel, though, no matter what our energy use is in the future, if there is going to be any liquid products, the safest way to transport those is in a pipeline,” Duffy said.