Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer took legal action Friday to shut down a pipeline that carries oil beneath a channel that links two of the Great Lakes.
Whitmer’s office notified the Canadian company, Enbridge, that it was revoking an easement granted in 1953 to extend a roughly 4-mile section of the pipeline through the Straits of Mackinac. The revocation will take effect within 180 days, at which point the flow of oil must stop.
The news out of Michigan comes as Minnesota granted key permits this week to Enbridge’s Line 3 crude oil pipeline replacement.
Bay Mills Indian Community President Bryan Newland thanked Gov. Whitmer for her decision.
“We are thrilled and thankful for Governor Whitmer's decision to revoke the easement for Enbridge’s pipeline to run beneath the Straits,” Newland said in a statement. “Enbridge has consistently shown that it only cares about its profits and not about the communities of the Great Lakes. This is a monumental first step in rectifying the harm that the company has already inflicted upon Bay Mills and other tribal nations for decades.”
The Democratic governor’s legal counsel said in a letter to Enbridge that the revocation resulted from “a violation of the public trust doctrine” and “a longstanding, persistent pattern of noncompliance with easement conditions and the standard of due care.”
“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,” Whitmer said in a statement. “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.”
Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians Chairperson Aaron Payment said Friday's announcement was a day to celebrate. Payment said women often lead the fight against Line 5.
“Our tribal ogitchidaakwe (warrior women) have been persistent voices for stopping the oil before a disaster strikes, especially those on our tribal board of directors – both those currently seated and those who previously served," Payment said. "They’ve led the way to shut down Line 5. Therefore, it is particularly satisfying that the women leading the state of Michigan have taken this responsibility seriously and taken this action today.”
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said she filed a lawsuit Friday to carry out Whitmer’s decision and shut down the line, saying the actions show that “Line 5 poses a great risk to our state, and it must be removed from our public waterways.”
Enbridge said there was “no credible basis” for Whitmer’s action.
“Line 5 remains safe, as envisioned by the 1953 Easement, and as recently validated by our federal safety regulator,” said Vern Yu, the company’s president for liquids pipelines.
Line 5 is part of Enbridge’s Lakehead network of pipelines that carries oil from western Canada to refineries in the U.S. and Ontario. The pipeline carries about 23 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids daily between Superior, Wisconsin, and Sarnia, Ontario, traversing parts of northern Michigan and Wisconsin.
Environmental groups contend it’s vulnerable to a rupture that would devastate portions of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan.
Enbridge reached an agreement with then-Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, in 2018 to replace the underwater segment with a new pipe that would be housed in a tunnel to be drilled through bedrock beneath the Straits of Mackinac.
The company is seeking state and federal permits for the project, which is not affected by Whitmer’s shutdown order regarding the existing pipeline.
Meanwhile, in Minnesota, state regulators granted a stack of important permits and approvals Thursday for Enbridge’s planned Line 3 pipeline replacement across northern Minnesota, setting the long-delayed $2.6 billion project on the road toward beginning construction soon.
The administration of Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz has come under fire from Line 3 supporters for pursuing the challenge; now it faces criticism from opponents for Thursday’s approvals.
Environmental and tribal groups have been fighting the project for years. They contend it threatens pristine waters where Native Americans harvest wild rice and that the Canadian tar sands oil it would carry would aggravate climate change. In a joint statement, Honor the Earth, MN 350 and Sierra Club North Star Chapter, in a joint statement, said the fight to stop the pipeline will continue.
“The science is clear that Line 3 would threaten Minnesota’s clean water and set back our state’s progress on climate at a time when we can least afford it. Granting Enbridge the permits to build this tar sands pipeline through our state defies the science and defies the law. This decision is completely out of step with the Walz administration’s stated goals of protecting our environment and tackling the climate crisis,” Sierra Club North Star Chapter Director Margaret Levin said in a statement.
The approvals from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Department of Natural Resources clear the way for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to issue the remaining federal permits, which is expected to happen fairly quickly. The MPCA could then approve a final construction storm water permit that’s meant to protect surface waters from pollutant runoff.
“The MPCA has used sound science and thorough analysis to ensure that necessary safeguards are in place to protect Minnesota’s waters,” Commissioner Laura Bishop said in a statement, adding that the certification “requires Enbridge to meet Minnesota’s extensive water quality standards instead of lower federal standards.”
But Calgary, Alberta-based Enbridge welcomed the approvals, saying in a statement that it recognizes that the permit conditions required by the two state agencies “are essential for protecting Minnesota’s sensitive streams and wild rice waters.”
Line 3 — which runs from Alberta across North Dakota and Minnesota to Enbridge’s terminal in Superior, Wisconsin — was built in the 1960s, but it’s deteriorating and can run at only about half its original capacity. Enbridge says replacing it will allow it to move oil more safely while creating 4,200 construction jobs and generating millions of dollars in local spending and tax revenues. The updated sections in Canada, North Dakota and Wisconsin are already operating. But the Minnesota segment has been working its way through regulatory agencies and the courts for six years.
Still pending is a court appeal from the Minnesota Department of Commerce, which contends that Enbridge failed to conduct a legally adequate long-range demand forecast. The independent Public Utilities Commission, which is overseeing the project, has rejected that argument several times.
“It’s clear now that Gov. Walz’s wish for Line 3 to have ‘a social permit’ was all talk and no action. This is a deeply unpopular pipeline that is a disaster for our climate, and it will be fought every step of the way,” said Andy Pearson, Midwest Tar Sands Coordinator for the climate change group MN350.
The regional council of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, one of the unions whose members would build the project, said in a statement that it expects construction to begin next month. Enbridge spokeswoman Juli Kellner wouldn’t confirm that date but said the company plans to begin construction as soon as it has the final authorization and permits in hand. Construction would then take six to nine months.
Indian Country Today contributed to this report