Enbridge sues Michigan over state’s attempt to shut down oil pipeline

State concerned that Line 5 pipeline poses risk for oil spill in Michigan lakes

FILE - In this June 8, 2017, file photo, fresh nuts, bolts and fittings are ready to be added to the east leg of the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline near St. Ignace, Mich., as Enbridge prepares to test the east and west sides of the Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac in Mackinaw City, Mich. (Dale G. Young/Detroit News via AP, File) (Dale G. Young)

Enbridge Inc. is suing the state of Michigan for taking steps to shut down the company’s oil pipeline that runs under the Straits of Mackinac.

On Nov. 13, the office of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer notified Enbridge that the state was revoking an easement granted in 1953 that allowed an extension of the Line 5 oil pipeline to run through the Straits of Mackinac. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel filed a lawsuit to carry out Whitmer’s decision on Nov. 13. The revocation would take effect in 180 days from the order, meaning the flow of oil must stop by then.

On Tuesday, Enbridge filed a federal lawsuit against Michigan, arguing that the state’s attempt to revoke the easement is “improper and unlawful.” Enbridge argues that disrupting the oil flow would negatively impact U.S. and Canadian residents and businesses.

“In the face of continued roadblocks by this Administration it’s time for the State to stop playing politics with the energy needs and anxieties of US and Canadian consumers and businesses that depend on Line 5,” said Vern Yu, Executive Vice President and President, Liquids Pipelines. “It is concerning to see the current Administration is willing to compromise these needs. We remain highly committed to protecting the Great Lakes, the environment, and all the people who use these waters while delivering energy that people rely on daily. Enbridge’s Line 5 has served Michiganders safely without spilling a drop of oil at the Straits crossing for more than 65 years, over nine different State Administrations.”

Enbridge also argues that its safety regulator, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, has found the pipelines to be safe and “fit for service,” officials said Tuesday.

However, Whitmer argues that the company has neglected to properly care for the pipelines over the years and has put the state at risk for an oil spill.

“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 earlier this month. “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,” Whitmer added.

Line 5 is part of Enbridge’s Lakehead network, which carries oil from western Canada to refineries in the U.S. and Ontario. The pipeline moves about 23 million gallons (87 million liters) daily between Superior, Wisconsin, and Sarnia, Ontario, traversing parts of northern Michigan and Wisconsin.

The underwater section beneath the Straits of Mackinac, which connects Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, is divided into two pipes that are 20 inches (50 centimeters) in diameter. Enbridge says they are in good condition and have never leaked.

Environmental activists, native tribes and some elected officials began pushing to decommission Line 5 after an Enbridge pipeline spilled at least 843,000 gallons (3.2 million liters) of oil in the Kalamazoo River in southern Michigan in 2010.

Enbridge signed a consent decree in 2017 with the U.S. Justice Department to resolve claims in from the massive oil spill in 2010 and another pipeline leak in Illinois. Enbridge paid $177 million and pledged to improve pipeline safety under that agreement.

Pressure grew as the company reported gaps in protective coating and installed supports when erosion opened wide spaces between sections of pipe and the lake bed. An anchor dragged by a commercial tug and barge dented both pipes in April 2018. One of the pipeline supports was damaged this summer, apparently by a boat cable.

Then, the Alberta, Canada-based company was ordered to temporarily halt operations this June after it discovered damage to the pipeline’s anchor support. According to Whitmer the damaged anchor support was approximately 150 feet (46 meters) from a section of the pipeline where damage to its coating was discovered on or around May 26.

Enbridge disclosed the information to Michigan officials and closed off the damaged leg of the pipeline in response, but the state was concerned about the impact the damage might do to the surrounding area.

More: Michigan wants Enbridge to pledge funds in case of oil spill

The issues with Pipeline 5 discovered in June came just after the company reached an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to pay a $6.7 million fine for allegedly failing to quickly fix pipeline safety issues. The EPA determined that Enbridge neglected to properly evaluate thousands of “shallow dents” on its Lakehead Pipeline System.

Enbridge officials said Tuesday that ceasing Line 5 operations would result in a daily shortage of millions of gallons of gasoline and other transportation fuels that would impact Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Ontario and Quebec, Canada.

Whitmer believes that the environmental impact of and potential risks posed by the pipeline are too significant to ignore.

On Tuesday, Whitmer’s communications director Tiffany Brown issued the following statement in response to Enbridge’s lawsuit against the state:

“Governor Whitmer was elected to protect and defend the Great Lakes, which are vital to Michigan’s economy and support over 350,000 jobs. Today’s lawsuit filed by Enbridge brazenly defies the people of Michigan and their right to protect the Great Lakes from a catastrophic oil spill. In short, Enbridge claims it can continue to pump oil through the Straits of Mackinac indefinitely, posing enormous risk to our economy and way of life – and that the people of Michigan have no say in the matter. The company that spilled nearly one million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River and made Michigan the home of the largest on-land oil spill in American history has again demonstrated it cares only about its bottom line.”

State officials also said Tuesday that the “continued use of the dual pipelines cannot be reconciled with the public’s rights in the Great Lakes and the State’s duty to protect them. Transporting millions of gallons of petroleum products each day through two 67-year old pipelines that lie exposed along the entire span of a busy shipping channel presents an extraordinary and unacceptable risk. The dual pipelines are vulnerable to anchor strikes, similar dangerous impacts, and the inherent risks of pipeline operations.”

Democratic U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, a member of the Senate committee that oversees the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, endorsed Whitmer’s move on Nov. 13 and said he would work with officials “to swiftly evaluate alternatives to Line 5 while continuing to hold Enbridge accountable.”

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About the Authors:

Cassidy Johncox is a senior digital news editor covering stories across the spectrum, with a special focus on politics and community issues.