Whitmer to revoke Enbridge oil pipeline easement in Straits of Mackinac

©Detroit Free Press

Canadian oil transportation giant Enbridge may soon lose its permission to operate a controversial, aging, oil and gas pipeline on the Straits of Mackinac lake bottom.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Michigan Department of Natural Resources Director Dan Eichinger on Friday notified Enbridge that a 1953 easement allowing it to operate dual pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac to transport petroleum and other products is being revoked and terminated.

Whitmer and Eichinger also filed a lawsuit asking the Ingham County Circuit Court to recognize the validity of this action, citing violation of the public trust doctrine, given the unreasonable risk that continued operation of the dual pipelines poses to the Great Lakes.

“Moreover, the state is terminating the easement based on Enbridge’s persistent and incurable violations of the easement’s terms and conditions,” Whitmer’s office said in a release Friday.

The notice requires Enbridge to cease operations of the dual pipelines in the Straits by May of 2021, allowing for an orderly transition that protects Michigan’s energy needs over the coming months.

“Here in Michigan, the Great Lakes define our borders, but they also define who we are as people,” Whitmer said.

“Enbridge has routinely refused to take action to protect our Great Lakes and the millions of Americans who depend on them for clean drinking water and good jobs. They have repeatedly violated the terms of the 1953 easement by ignoring structural problems that put our Great Lakes and our families at risk.

“Most importantly, Enbridge has imposed on the people of Michigan an unacceptable risk of a catastrophic oil spill in the Great Lakes that could devastate our economy and way of life. That’s why we’re taking action now, and why I will continue to hold accountable anyone who threatens our Great Lakes and fresh water.”

Enbridge officials did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

Line 5 moves 23 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids per day east through the Upper Peninsula, splitting into twin underwater pipelines through the Straits, before returning to a single transmission pipeline through the Lower Peninsula that runs south to Sarnia, Ontario.

The pipeline, and particularly its more than 4-mile underwater section in the Straits, have for years been a source of contention.

Enbridge was responsible for one of the largest inland oil spills in U.S. history — a major leak on one of its large oil transmission lines near Marshall in July 2010. That spill fouled more than 38 miles of the Kalamazoo River and took four years and more than $1 billion to clean up. Enbridge in 2016 agreed to a $177-million settlement with the U.S. Justice Department and Environmental Protection Agency, including $62 million in penalties, over the Marshall spill and a 2010 spill on another of its pipelines in Romeoville, Ill.

A similar spill disaster on Line 5 in the Straits would devastate the Great Lakes shoreline communities and the Michigan economy, critics of the pipeline have long contended. Enbridge officials have countered that Line 5 is safe.

Mike Shriberg, regional executive director of the environmental nonprofit National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center, praised Whitmer’s move to revoke the 1953 easement.

“Line 5 should have never been built in the first place,” he said. “Gov. Whitmer is now bravely, and correctly, standing up for the Great Lakes.

“This is a legacy-defining action by the governor. She is standing on the side not only of clean water, but clean energy and the jobs that go along with the transition to a renewable energy economy.”

Others, however, have cited Line 5 as an economic necessity.

“Without Line 5, these family-sustaining jobs will be gone, and all of the employment we support will be at risk,” said Justin Donley, president of United Steelworkers Local 912, representing just under 400 employees at the PBF Toledo Refining Complex in Oregon, Ohio, which gets most of its raw products for refining from Line 5. Donley commented at an August online hearing of the Michigan Public Service Commission on Enbridge’s proposed $300 million tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac, into which a single, new oil and gas pipeline would be constructed.

The Toledo refinery provides the majority of jet fuel to Detroit Metro Airport, and “there are no feasible and prudent alternatives of supply that would sustain operations” there absent Line 5, Donley said.

Many have expressed concern about the aging pipes over several years, noting that a pipeline disaster in the Straits such as the one that occurred on an Enbridge oil transmission pipeline in Marshall in 2010 would devastate the Great Lakes, shoreline and island communities, and the state economy.

Enbridge officials have steadfastly maintained the pipes are safe, and are proposing a more than $300 million project to put a new Line 5 pipeline in a tunnel under the Straits bottom.

The amount of oil and gas products moved through the refinery would equate to thousands of semi trucks per day, Donley said.

“The street system where the refinery is located is not capable of handling the traffic increase it would take to move our product,” he said. “And even if it were, the refinery doesn’t have the infrastructure to move that amount of material by truck.”

Others, including environmental groups, however, say existing pipeline networks could move the oil and gas where it needs to go without Line 5.

The state’s clashes with Enbridge over Line 5’s operation pre-date Whitmer’s administration.

Enbridge knew a section of the required protective coating on its underwater Straits pipelines was damaged in 2014 — but did not make state officials aware of it until three years later.

How a shutdown of the existing Line 5 pipeline might impact Enbridge’s proposed new pipeline and tunnel is unclear. Enbridge continues to seek required state and federal permits for that project.

“Enbridge could still go ahead with their current tunnel proposal, but it’s going to be much harder to prove to regulators there’s a need if Line 5 is already shut down,” Shriberg said.

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©2020 Detroit Free Press