September 28, 2020

Tunnel Vision

Guest Opinion
By Cathye Williams | Aug. 22, 2020

What is it about Northern Michigan? If you didn’t know better, you’d look at the abundant sunshine and blue water and shady forests and think we’re having a glorious time. Maybe Mother Nature has decided her alarm bells don’t work here and has opted to send poignant reminders of all that will be lost if we don’t act to protect our environment.

Welcome to summer up North 2020, where Earth’s beauty belies the anxiety and hardship washing over its human inhabitants. The pandemic, civil unrest, and economic woes that are disrupting so many lives should give us pause about what we are doing to each other and to the earth.  Still, none of these worries have muted the colors in our gardens or the aquamarine view from every hilltop. Driving still takes us by fields of fragrant cut hay and over sparkling streams. We still have encounters with wild things and starry skies that take our breath away. Hard-pressed local farms somehow keep supplying gorgeous produce to feed our bodies and our hope.

I am more than grateful to count these blessings yet fear the complacency they foster. We do get some distress signals — warming lakes, rising rivers, wild weather. The puzzling bird or fish die-off. Mostly, though, we are distant from the front lines of climate change. So the subtle signs we do get are often shrugged off and attributed to that quirky Michigan weather we love to joke about so much. Science says otherwise, but if you’ve never had the ocean or a raging fire drive you from your home, nor lived where heat indexes regularly exceed 100 degrees, it can be harder to conceptualize the risk.  

One thing that hasn’t escaped our worry, however, is the threat of Enbridge Line 5. Michigan is very much on the front lines of the destruction caused by extractive industries and the unjust systems that support them. The fight to shut down the Canadian company’s aging pipeline has been going on for years and continues, undaunted by COVID-19. We are indebted to the individual water protectors, environmental groups, tribal and other government officials standing up to the oil industry and their well-funded political allies.

The reasons for decommissioning Line 5 are well documented and compelling. An oil leak would devastate our Great Lakes ecosystem, drinking water, economy — in short, our way of life. Line 5 is not necessary to Michigan’s energy infrastructure; it’s a shortcut to move oil from Western Canada, primarily to refineries in Eastern Canada and Ohio, or for export via the Atlantic. Only 5–10 percent of Line 5 crude oil is processed and used in Michigan*.  Line 5 is not vital to the Upper Peninsula. There are several viable options to deliver the liquid fuel to the 18 percent of U.P. residents who use it for heating, and none of these options involve going under the Straits of Mackinac (FLOW, 2017, 2020). To save space, let’s skip Enbridge’s safety record. Just Google “Kalamazoo oil spill” or “Enbridge anchor strike”.

Equally disturbing is the solution being pushed by Enbridge: building a tunnel beneath the Straits to house a new pipeline so it can continue moving fossil fuels for decades. Aside from the concerns about the environmental impact of the construction itself, and the continued dangers of a spill from the old pipeline in the meantime, to broker a deal with a company that plans to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to perpetuate a process that should be dismantled is beyond all reason.

Scientists have told us, in no uncertain terms, that to avoid catastrophic impacts to life on Earth, we must limit average global temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report, 2018). Further, scientists across multiple disciplines agree that to achieve this we must convert to non-carbon energy sources in the next 10–20 years.

So how does this square with a proposal to invest in oil infrastructure under water connecting two Great Lakes when that infrastructure is expected to take 7–10 years to complete? Short answer, it doesn’t. Any money sunk into this “tunnel to disaster” would better be spent on developing infrastructure for wind, solar, and other non-carbon energy delivery, not to mention R&D for storage and transmission, and energy technologies yet to be discovered.

So what about jobs, you say? According to Enbridge’s website, its 2019 workforce included “116 Michigan-based permanent and temporary employees, and provisioned contractors.” (One might wonder how many of these provisioned contractors are Michigan lobbyists.) Building the tunnel would increase Enbridge’s Michigan workforce by a few hundred and only temporarily. Contrast this with the report that puts Michigan’s clean energy industry jobs at 126,081, with a 9 percent projected growth rate (Crain’s Detroit Business, 2019).

So can we really phase out fossil fuels? Yes! Stanford University has collated a collection of 47 peer-reviewed scientific articles published by 13 independent research groups, including 91 authors, all supporting the notion that the world’s energy demands can be met with 100 percent or near-100 percent renewable sources in the span of 10–30 years. Furthermore, a study released this year by Rewiring America shows that decarbonizing the economy in the next 15 years is not only feasible but also would create millions of jobs across the country and save average American households up to $2,000 annually in reduced energy costs.  

“I think we have too many people believing we need a miracle, which we don’t,” said Saul Griffith, one of the authors of the report, speaking in an interview with Fast Company magazine.  

That’s good news. We don’t need a miracle, and we don’t need a tunnel.

What we do need is leaders who will deliver the policy needed for this massive mobilization and transformation to take place. Right now, the single most important thing you can do for the planet, and the people on it, is vote.

Cathye Williams serves as a volunteer and media liaison for the Grand Traverse area chapter of the Citizens Climate Lobby, www.citizensclimatelobby.com. She writes from Benzie County.

 

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