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Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today

The Biden administration is weighing the market consequences of Enbridge Line 5, an aging pipeline that carries Canadian oil and gas for 645 miles through Wisconsin, Michigan and then into Canada.

White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said during a Monday press briefing she expects the U.S. and Canada to “engage constructively” in discussions about Line 5. On Tuesday, Jean-Pierre clarified that the president isn’t considering shutting down Line 5 but has pledged to discuss the pipeline.

The discussions arise as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is preparing an environmental impact statement on Enbridge’s proposal to run a replacement segment through a tunnel that would be drilled beneath the Straits of Mackinac, which connects Lake Huron and Lake Michigan.

Enbridge series pipeline - Enbridge logo

The announcement follows a Nov. 4 letter from Michigan’s 12 federally recognized tribes to Biden urging him to “lend unequivocal support to our efforts … to decommission the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline.”

The tribes have joined with Michigan’s Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Biden ally, and Attorney General Dana Nessel, in fighting the pipeline.

Whitmer has demanded closure of the 68-year-old line because of the potential for a catastrophic rupture along a four-mile-long section that lies on the lake bottom of the Straits of Mackinac.

The company rejected Whitmer’s order to halt the flow of oil last May and filed a federal lawsuit, which is pending.

Line 5 flows from the refinery in Superior, Wisconsin, through Michigan’s upper peninsula and terminates in Sarnia, Ontario, crossing through territory ceded under the 1836 Treaty of Washington.

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Although tribes have been engaged in a long-running battle to decommission Line 5, leaders seized on the United Nation’s ongoing Climate Change conference, known as COP26, to remind Biden of his climate promises.

“This is part of a larger conversation at COP26 about where the world is going in terms of combating climate change and working toward renewable energy,” said Whitney Gravelle, president of the Bay Mills Indian Community in Michigan.

“We need to start removing fossil fuel infrastructure so that when we look into the future we are creating a sustainable world for the next seven generations.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations greet Joe Biden, President of the United States of America, on arrival to COP26 World Leaders Summit of the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference at the SEC, Glasgow. (Photo courtesy of Karwai Tang/ UK Government)

Although Biden pledged during his campaign to end new fossil fuel drilling on federal lands and promised at COP26 to reassert U.S. leadership in cutting emissions, approvals for companies to drill for oil and gas on public lands are on pace this year to reach their highest level since George W. Bush was in office.

On Nov. 2, the Department of the Interior released a report saying that drilling on public lands could cost billions of dollars in climate change impacts.

Conversely, in his Nov. 1 speech to world leaders at COP26, Biden spoke otherwise.

“We meet with the eyes of the world upon us,” he said. “Will we act to do what is necessary, to seize the enormous opportunity before us or condemn future generations to suffer?”

Biden suspended oil leases in Alaska’s Arctic refuge in June, but the administration's decision not to cite the climate costs as a reason to limit other leases frustrates environmental activists and others who have urged curbs in government fossil fuel sales.

They said the actions have undermined the president's participation in the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, where Biden and other world leaders on Tuesday pledged to cut emissions of methane, a byproduct of drilling.

The Biden administration has not taken a position on Line 5 but is under increasing pressure to do so. Last month, Canada invoked a 1977 treaty with the U.S. that guarantees the unimpeded transit of oil between the two nations.

Gravelle said she and other tribal leaders responded sharply upon learning that Canada invoked the treaty, .

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“Oh so you want to talk treaties? Let’s talk treaties then,” she said.

Gravelle said treaties with tribal nations should take precedence over the agreement with Canada.

Self-portrait of Whitney Gravelle, President Bay Mills Indian Community, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Whitney Gravelle)

“There is a long history of state and federal governments ignoring treaties with Indigenous peoples and not upholding those rights that continues today,” Gravelle said. “Canada is invoking and relying on a treaty when there are numerous treaties with tribal nations here in the U.S. and Canada that predate and supersede the 1977 treaty.”

She noted that the Bay Mills Community is a signatory to the 1836 Treaty of Washington, in which Michigan tribes ceded 14 million acres of land and 13 million acres of navigable waters to the U.S. for the creation of the state of Michigan.

Under the treaty, tribes are guaranteed rights to hunt, fish and gather in these lands with the understanding that the land and water would be maintained and protected so those rights could continue.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953 issued a permit allowing the pipeline to cross the international border. The permit says it “may be terminated at the will of the President of the United States.”

Environmental groups and tribes say that provision means Biden could order an immediate shutdown. Other options for the Biden administration include filing a federal court brief supporting Whitmer’s position or entering negotiations with Canada, said Mike Shriberg, director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Office.

“Because Canada has invoked this treaty, the Biden administration is dragged into this whether they want to be or not,” he said.

Enbridge and its supporters say a shutdown would cause fuel shortages and higher prices of gasoline and propane in the region while killing thousands of jobs.

“Billions of dollars in economic activity would be in jeopardy, and the environment would be at greater risk due to additional trucks operating on roadways and railroads carrying hazardous materials,” said a Nov. 4 letter to Biden signed by 13 Republicans in Congress, including Reps. Bob Latta of Ohio and Tim Walberg and Jack Bergman of Michigan.

Tribes and environmentalists say those claims are exaggerated. State and nonprofit studies have shown that “with an orderly shutdown and careful planning, there would be little to no noticeable impact,” on the economy or fuel prices, said Beth Wallace of the National Wildlife Federation.

Enbridge spokesperson Michael Barnes told Indian Country Today that the pipeline needs to continue flowing.

“Line 5 is a vital energy infrastructure that Michigan and the region rely on daily for their energy,” he said in an email. “The long-term solution for protecting the Great Lakes, the people who use them and keeping energy flowing is the Great Lakes Tunnel project. Which we are willing to construct. Building a tunnel under the Straits will reduce the chance of a spill to nearly zero.”

He reiterated Enbridge’s recognition of tribal concerns.

“Enbridge supports tribes’ sovereignty and treaty rights,” he said. “We support the federal government. We support restoration of treaty rights as well as the acknowledgement of historical reservation boundaries.”

Gravelle disagreed with Barnes’ claim that Enbridge respects treaty rights.

“You have all the 12 federally recognized tribes in the state of Michigan asking for decommissioning of Line 5,” she said. “Saying they support treaty rights while ignoring us perplexes me.”

Gravelle also noted that Enbridge claims on its website that the company endorses the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which calls for governments to secure “free, prior and informed consent” from Indigenous peoples in order to develop resources that could impact their rights.

“Tribes are aligned that Line 5 will have a catastrophic impact on the land and water and destroy our relationship with those resources,” Gravelle said. “And yet they ignore that.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story. 

Indian Country Today - bridge logo

11/9 correction: White House deputy press secretary Jean-Pierre clarified that the president isn’t considering shutting down Line 5 but has pledged to discuss the pipeline.

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