The herculean citizen effort to protect the Great Lakes from a catastrophic Line 5 oil spill has reached a pivotal inflection point. May 12th was the deadline that Governor Whitmer set for revoking Enbridge’s easement to use the Great Lakes bottomlands, and the company has been ordered to stop the line’s flow of oil.
Enbridge has said it will not submit to this ruling, however, as it has already challenged the revocation in court. But as of today the company is in violation, a lawbreaker, and must be held accountable as any other business or entity would be. As the Great Lakes state, Michigan is accountable for upholding the public trust and protecting this global freshwater resource first and foremost. Governor Whitmer has already indicated her intent to fine Enbridge for every day it is in violation—as any company should expect that flouts the law.
Clearly this pipeline should never have been constructed in the open waters of the Great Lakes. In 1953 Michigan officials short-circuited full legal review of the pipeline, choosing then to trust in engineering technology that was promised to last for 50 years. Sixty-eight years later, the risks and rewards are starkly clear, as is the poor track record of Enbridge. Canadian interests benefit most from this arrangement, while Michigan residents and businesses bear all the risk. The risk to the drinking water of millions of Michiganders is truly unimaginable and the environmental risk is equally vast.
The Line 5 legal drama is unfolding amid the context of a heightening climate emergency in which the world is rapidly transitioning away from oil and toward carbon-free energy sources. Electric vehicles and clean, renewable energy generation is where the world is heading. In coming decades there will be far less demand for oil and the pipelines that carry it. It is fitting, then, that Line 5—the pipeline risking more of our nation’s fresh drinking water than any other line, while primarily benefitting a foreign country—should be the first to be decommissioned.
The current legal battle is over jurisdiction, with Enbridge and Canada wanting desperately to make this a federal case in hopes that they can rely on rules written by the oil industry to protect their interests. However, this is clearly a state property and public trust case. Michigan is not claiming jurisdiction over pipeline safety; instead the claim is about the right to defend the public trust and control of our Great Lakes bottomlands.
The upcoming Michigan Climate and Clean Energy Summit will shine an important spotlight on the Line 5 issue. Keynote speakers will include top officials from the Whitmer administration and Michigan Public Service Commission, who will be asked to explain their position. Other keynotes include Biden administration officials from the Office of Climate and Department of Energy, and both of Michigan’s U.S. Senators. It is important that these federal officials recognize and support Michigan’s legal argument to protect its public trust waters and bottomlands. The Summit will also feature a panel with heroic Line 5 shut down advocates including Sean McBrearty, coordinator of the Oil and Water Mix campaign, Whitney Gravelle, president of the Bay Mills Indian Community, and Beth Wallace managing director of the Great Lakes Business Network.
Today, May 13th, is a huge in-person rally at Straits, appropriately led by tribal nations, to “Evict Enbridge,” as they will be trespassing violators in our public bottomlands. We’ve come a long way since the first rally at the Straits in 2013, which was led by Groundwork. This issue has now evolved to be embraced by people across all of Michigan and beyond. Groundwork supporters should be proud of the catalyzing role and early support that nurtured this issue from a pipe dream to what will soon be a pipeline shutdown.