Michigan GOP governor candidates oppose shutting down 'dangerous' Great Lakes oil pipeline

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Removing Line 5 would protect Lake Michigan from a potentially disastrous oil spill and would 'have no noticeable impact to consumers,' according to one study.

Line 5 is a 645-mile pipeline that runs from Superior, Wisconsin, to Sarnia, Ontario, transiting the Great Lakes region through the Straits of Mackinac, which separates Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. Here, its single 30-inch diameter pipe splits into two 20-inch pipes which rest on the lakebed under 100 to 270 feet of freshwater.

The underwater pipeline, which was constructed in 1953 with a projected 50-year lifespan, is owned by the Canadian company Enbridge, Inc. Every day, Line 5 carries 540,000 barrels of light crude across 400 rivers and streams and alongside 10 miles of wetlands.

The Michigan League of Conservation Voters says the 60-year-old Line 5 pipeline is damaged beyond repair. In 2010, a tugboat anchor struck one of the pipes in multiple places. Over the years, the anchors securing the pipeline to the lakebed have failed, allowing it to rise and move in the strong currents.

So far, the pipeline has already ruptured almost 30 times, spilling an estimated 1.1 million gallons of oil, according to a report from the National Wildlife Federation, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

A study from the University of Michigan suggested that a worst-case scenario rupture of Line 5 could result in tens of billions of dollars worth of costs to the state, as it would affect not only tourism, water management, and real estate, but would also impinge on the steel industry supply chain if ships transporting iron ore were prevented from using the Soo Locks, which connect Lake Superior and Lake Huron.

In 2010, another of Enbridge's pipelines, Line 6, ruptured along a 30-mile section of the Kalamazoo River. That spill, of over 1 million gallons of tar sands crude oil, ranks as one of the largest inland oil spills in U.S. history. The river was in high flood at the time, causing the oil to settle on the banks and flow into the floodplain.

The remediation work lasted five years, and, Enbridge claims, removed 90% of the spilled oil. It included dredging the river bed and extensive excavation and replacement of fill along the banks of the impacted stretch.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has made it a priority to shut down Line 5 to protect Lake Michigan, the state's largest natural resource.

In 2020, Whitmer revoked an easement that allowed Enbridge to operate the outdated pipeline. She then filed a lawsuit to enforce its shutdown, citing the risk of the pipeline's failure and noting that "continued operation of the dual pipelines violates the state's solemn duty to protect the Great Lakes under the public trust doctrine."

Whitmer withdrew her lawsuit last year and gave her support to one filed by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel. The lawsuit, Nessel V. Enbridge, was filed in state court in 2019 and seeks to use public trust protections to shut down the pipeline.

Candidates in the Republican primary for Michigan governor have repeatedly expressed their support for the opening of Line 5 as a pillar of their energy program.

Tudor Dixon, who currently leads the GOP field in the governor's race, sees Line 5 as a key piece of her state energy policy.

At Wednesday's GOP candidates' debate, Dixon claimed that shutting down Line 5 would lead to higher gas prices. But according to a report from the group Environmental Defense Canada, shutting down the pipeline would have a negligible effect on gas prices "to the extent that these changes would likely go unnoticed."

Another study, by London Economics International, concluded that the "small volume of Michigan-produced crude oil production that utilizes Line 5 to get to market" would increase in price by less than one cent per gallon, and would "have no noticeable impact to consumers."

In a recent Fox News interview, Dixon claimed that shutting down the pipeline could endanger lives and implied it could lead to potential shortages of propane heating fuel for residents of Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

"This environmental issue does not exist," she said, "and yet we are going to put more jobs at risk to appease environmental radicals."

Contrary to Dixon's claims, however, relatively few households in Michigan's Upper Peninsula receive propane from Line 5, according to the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. The same amount of propane carried by the pipeline could instead be delivered by "4-5 tanker trucks" or "1-2 rail cars" per day, according to a report from the Great Lakes environmental group For Love of Water (FLOW).

Kevin Rinke, a millionaire automotive executive, is running closely behind Dixon in the Michigan GOP primary and also supports keeping Line 5 open. He recently claimed that the aging pipeline was "the safest way to protect our natural resources, and it's the safest way to ensure that our fellow citizens in Michigan have safe, affordable, reliable services and gas."

"We'd also immediately want to act on the tunnel for Line 5, for the jobs that it creates, the economic stimulus it provides for Michigan, and the safety for our environment and our Great Lakes is enough for me to say, let's get after it, we need that stimulus and those people working now," Rinke said in an interview with WZZM 13, a local ABC affiliate.

Enbridge has a plan to construct a tunnel through which the pipeline would run in an effort to improve its security, but it would likely take years for such a project to obtain the necessary building permits, according to the local environmental group Oil & Water Don't Mix.

In May, tribal citizens from multiple states marched in the streets of Mackinaw City, Michigan, to protest the fossil fuel industry's abuse of tribal lands. The 1836 Treaty of Washington and other treaties ceded tribal lands in Michigan to the federal government in exchange for land use rights.

"I don't think that Enbridge has any respect for [treaties] whatsoever," Holly T. Bird, an Indigenous Pueblo/Yaqui/Apache activist, told the Michigan Advance. "They're sort of like locusts. They feel that whatever land they cross is disposable to them. And it doesn't seem to matter to them."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.