Seizing the profits of a major oil company, making Canadians angry, tugboats causing havoc: It’s all happening in Michigan right now. The mandated shutdown of a major oil pipeline is brewing into a nasty fight that pits Michigan’s governor and environmental groups against a fossil fuel company—as well as the country of Canada.
At issue are two pipelines owned and operated by Enbridge, an energy company headquartered in Canada, that ferry crude oil and natural gas to the U.S. via the Straits of Mackinac, a shipping channel in Michigan that connects two of the Great Lakes. The two pipelines are collectively known as Line 5—and they’re in pretty crappy shape. The lines were built in 1953, but were only designed to last for 50 years; Enbridge has, essentially, been stalling on making major repairs or replacements for close to two decades. Even before the pipelines met their expiration date, Line 5’s safety record has been pretty abysmal: Records collected by researchers in 2017 show that the pipeline has spilled at least 1.13 million gallons of fossil fuels in 30 separate incidents around Michigan since 1968.
A series of high-profile safety flukes in recent years haven’t done much to assuage fears. In 2010, another Enbridge line spilled 1 million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River, prompting concerns about the safety of Line 5. In 2018, a tugboat anchor, of all things, dented the Line 5 pipeline and caused a minor spill, while in 2020 Enbridge disclosed that different anchors had also damaged another area on the pipeline—right next to a spot where the protective coating had worn off. Sounds safe!
Last November, saying that Enbridge has “failed for decades to meet [safety] obligations” for the Line 5 pipeline and that it poses “an unacceptable risk of a catastrophic oil spill,” Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration terminated the easement that allowed Enbridge to operate Line 5, giving them until the end of May 12 to stop the flow of oil. Shutting down Line 5 had been one of Whitmer’s campaign promises; her administration has also set emissions reduction goals for 2025 and 2050, and her plan after the pipeline shuts down involves incorporating renewable energy and electrification to help replace the oil provided by the pipeline.
Pipelines in 2021 face a much more hostile environment than they did in the 1950s. Replacing and updating the pipeline, environmental groups say, would lock Michigan into using a fossil fuel supply that is at odds with its clean energy goals. The Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians is also seeking to designate part of the pipeline’s route as an official cultural property after a group found what seemed to be an archaeological site at the bottom of the Straits. This designation would give Enbridge extra hurdles to jump through with the federal government before making any repairs or changes. Enbridge is also facing a series of legal challenges and heated protests as it tries to build another pipeline in Minnesota known as Line 3, so it’s not exactly a beloved name among environmental groups in the Midwest right now.
Enbridge has not taken Whitmer’s order well, and the fight keeps getting more heated. In the months since the November announcement, it sued the state, claiming Line 5 is regulated under federal authority and that Whitmer has no standing to terminate the easement. Politicians from across the country—some of them from states that get oil from Line 5, but others who seem to be in it mostly to support fossil fuels—have also voiced support for keeping the pipeline open. As the deadline looms, Enbridge has effectively refused to shut down the flow of oil, saying the court or the feds would have to give the final order. Whitmer fired back: She sent a letter to the company on Tuesday saying that the state would try to seize profits from the oil Enbridge puts through the pipeline after Wednesday, citing “wrongful use of the easement.”
The escalating situation in Michigan is also posing a big problem for the Biden administration. In January, President Biden made Canadians angry (wow) by revoking a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have carried tar sands from Canada into the U.S. Even though supporting the end of a fossil fuel flow would be in line with his administration’s climate-friendly image, wading into the mess in Michigan could mean pissing off the Canadians (again, wow) even more. And Canada seems ready to fight for dirty fuels: It filed suit against Michigan this week, while the Canadian government said Tuesday that the case “raises concerns regarding the efficacy of the historic framework upon which the U.S.-Canada relationship has been successfully managed for generations.”
The official deadline for shutting off the flow of oil is tonight, but even if Enbridge does an about-face and turns off the pipeline, it looks like the drama won’t be ending anytime soon in the Great Lakes. How exactly the first big pipeline showdown of the Biden administration will play out remains anyone’s guess—but everyone from the federal government to environmental groups to Canadians may have a chance to jump in on the brawl.