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Line 5 Oil Tunnel: U.S. Army Corps Environmental Study Marks a Return to the Rule of Law

By Jim Olson and Nora Baty

Jim Olson is FLOW’s Founder and Legal Advisor

In recognition of the critical importance of the Great Lakes and the rule of law, the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) announced June 23 that the federal agency will conduct an environmental impact statement (EIS) for Enbridge’s Line 5 oil tunnel proposed for the Straits of Mackinac–handing citizens and communities battling the existential threat of climate change an important victory.

These evaluations delve into critical questions of risks, impacts, and alternatives—particularly a “no action” alternative when it comes to the falling demand for crude oil and the blazing heat waves across North America. Because of the depth of this evaluation and based on past practice, the EIS process will likely take three-and-a-half years to complete. While this may result in no tunnel or delay a tunnel, if it is ever built, the decision points to an even more critical action: It’s time to double-down on an orderly shutdown of the perilous Line 5 Pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac.

“The Army will ensure all voices are heard in an open, transparent and public process through development of the EIS and is committed to ensuring that meaningful and robust consultation with tribal nations occurs.”

Nora Baty is a Milliken Law and Policy Intern at FLOW.

Governor Whitmer and the Department of Natural Resources, under their solemn public trust duty to exercise prudence to protect the Great Lakes from a massive oil spill that would cost more than $6 billion, had little choice but to revoke the 1953 easement and close the 70-year old hazard. With the falling demand for crude oil, and capacity in other pipelines that criss-cross the continent, adjustments in oil transport can meet Canadian demand and the relatively minor need for crude oil from Line 5 for Michigan.

Finally a Full and Comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement

Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), an EIS is required for major projects “significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.” The law, as contemplated, established rules to ensure that the federal government considers the health and environmental effects and alternatives to actions proposed by corporations seeking permits. Under the NEPA rollbacks by the Trump Administration, agencies and citizens had little chance to trigger an EIS under NEPA, despite the magnitude of the action and environmental risks.

Now under the Biden Administration, “The Army will ensure all voices are heard in an open, transparent and public process through development of the EIS and is committed to ensuring that meaningful and robust consultation with tribal nations occurs,” according to a press release. The USACE’s decision to require an environmental impact statement and its commitment to the rule of law are important to ensure there is a robust record examining the impacts of the proposed project, using scientific data and expert opinions, and that alternatives to the project are adequately considered. 

Courts and agency decisions have rejected projects with incomplete scientific data or that fail to assess alternatives to avoid environmental impacts. Earlier this year, Michigan Administrative Law Judge Daniel Pulter denied the Back-Forty permit for a massive mining project in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula because the underlying hydrogeologic information, wetland impacts, and the potential alternatives were not adequately evaluated. 

FLOW’s legal team aided in this effort by submitting comprehensive comments to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers calling for an environmental impact statement on behalf of a dozen organizations: Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority, Clean Water Action—Michigan, FLOW, Groundwork Center, League of Women Voters of Michigan, Michigan Environmental Council, Michigan League of Conservation Voters, NMEAC, Sierra Club Michigan Chapter, Straits Area Concerned Citizens for Peace, Justice and Environment, Straits of Mackinac Alliance, and TC 350. The comments demonstrated a serious gap in Enbridge’s incomplete evaluation of the presence of loose, unconsolidated rock and sediment in the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac that the company at one point characterized as solid bedrock.

This EIS decision marks a return to NEPA’s mandate that the federal government review major projects to the “fullest extent possible.” This is particularly important for Line 5 in light of the decreasing demand for crude oil and the shift in Canada and the U.S. to renewable energy (wind, solar, conservation), and a “no action” alternative to the tunnel is more likely than ever.

Line 5 Is No Longer Necessary

The no action alternative for a proposed project, such as Enbridge’s proposed oil tunnel, looks at the effects of not approving the action under consideration. Here, Enbridge will need to prove, first, that the tunnel and Line 5 are even needed, and second, if there is a need, that there are no other routes or existing lines into Ohio, Michigan, and into Canada. According to FLOW’s experts, available capacity and flexibility to meet energy demand in the Great Lakes region already exists in the North American energy pipeline system operated by Enbridge and its competition without threatening our public waters, including Enbridge’s Line 78 across southern Michigan.

Unfortunately for Enbridge, and fortunately for the climate, the energy landscape is shifting and renewable energy growth is accelerating. At the same time, the beginning of Line 5 tunnel construction looks farther and farther away. One study found that such federal reviews, known as environmental impact statements, take an average of nearly 3-and-a-half years to complete, and then permits and construction would take years longer after that.

The tunnel may or may not be constructed. While Enbridge continues to operate Line 5 in the Straits, violating the law, and threatening the Great Lakes and the region’s economy, the existing dual pipelines pose an unacceptable risk of massive harm to the Great Lakes, communities, citizens, and businesses. The reality is that we can no longer wait for Line 5 to be shut down. It is time for the court process and the State and citizens of the Great Lakes Basin to bring the State’s revocation of Enbridge’s 68-year old easement and pipeline to a close.

FLOW Praises Decision Today by Michigan Public Service Commission to Consider Climate Impacts in Permit Case for Proposed Oil Tunnel in Great Lakes

The following is in reaction to the Michigan Public Service Commission’s ruling today regarding the scope of review for permitting required for Enbridge to replace and relocate its decaying Line 5 oil pipelines crossing the Straits of Mackinac with a proposed 18- to 21-foot diameter tunnel housing a single new pipeline.

FLOW and other organizations and tribes have formally intervened in the MPSC contested case process for siting the tunnel and pipeline to assert that Michigan law requires a comprehensive review of the project’s necessity, impacts, and alternatives in the context of climate change and the ongoing rapid transition to renewable energy sources.

“FLOW applauds the MPSC’s careful commitment to science, sound economics, and the public interest,” stated Liz Kirkwood, executive director of For Love of Water (FLOW). “The Commission’s decision is significant because it recognizes that the Michigan Environmental Protection Act applies to consideration of greenhouse gas emissions that would be spurred by Enbridge’s proposed oil pipeline tunnel. The MPSC clearly understands the need to accelerate the energy transition, adopt clean energy solutions, and avoid the environmental and economic impacts of legacy fossil fuels.” 

Jim Olson, FLOW’s founder and legal advisor, said, “The MPSC’s decision demonstrates true leadership to address the transport and consumption of crude oil and the devastating effects crude oil has on the climate and the Great Lakes, infrastructure, and our quality of life in the 21st century.”

Background on Line 5 and the MPSC

See FLOW’s ongoing coverage of the Michigan Public Service Commission review of the Enbridge oil pipeline tunnel proposed for the Straits of Mackinac here:

For more information, see FLOW’s Line 5 fact sheets and blogs:

FLOW Will Appeal Administrative Decision on Oil Tunnel and Pipeline that Ignores Critical Evidence on Climate, Public Need, and Looming Shutdown of Line 5

Photo by Barbara Brown.

Jim Olson, environmental attorney and senior legal advisor to FLOW (For Love of Water), the Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City, reacts to a narrow ruling released today by an administrative law judge on Enbridge’s oil tunnel proposed for the Straits of Mackinac:

Today’s ruling by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Dennis W. Mack ignores the declining public need for oil as the U.S. and world finally reckon with the climate emergency, and it is blind to the fact that Gov. Whitmer has ordered the permanent shutdown of the Line 5 pipeline that the tunnel would contain this May.

“The State of Michigan will never reach a just and lawful decision on the proposed oil tunnel by agreeing with Enbridge to ignore critical evidence and treat a proposed oil tunnel meant to last 99 years as simply a maintenance-and-replacement project. The tunnel is a Trojan Horse designed to push billions of gallons of oil through the world’s largest system of freshwater lakes in an era of water crises hastened by climate change.

“As a permissive intervenor in the case, FLOW again plans to file an appeal with the Michigan Public Service Commission, as we did in November, along with other environmental and tribal interests

The Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA) enacted in 1970 was created to compel agencies like the MPSC to evaluate the cumulative environmental impacts and to examine alternatives to proposed projects. In the case at hand, MEPA requires the MPSC to examine the environmental, health, and climatic risks of the proposed tunnel and Line 5 pipeline. The greenhouse gas emissions from Line 5’s oil and natural gas liquids, at more than 57 million metric tons a year, is greater than the annual yield from the combined operation on the nation’s three largest coal plants.

“The law does not keep the MPSC frozen in time such that they can ignore these paramount issues.

“The State of Michigan has a perpetual duty as trustees under the Public Trust Doctrine to prevent unacceptable harm to the Great Lakes and the public’s right to use them, which led to the Governor’s and DNR’s November 13 order and lawsuit to revoke and terminate the easement allowing Line 5 to occupy the Straits of Mackinac. The ALJ rejected the argument that the Governor’s notice and revocation of the 1953 easement is a basis to evaluate the environmental effects of Line 5 or the consumption of the oil transported on the system under MEPA.”

Background: See FLOW’s ongoing coverage of the Michigan Public Service Commission review of the Enbridge oil pipeline tunnel proposed for the Straits of Mackinac here:

FLOW to Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority: No Enbridge Oil Tunnel Without Authorization Under Public Trust Doctrine

FLOW President Jim Olson made the following statement to the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority during a February 3, 2021, public meeting regarding the Line 5 Easement, Assignment, Tunnel Agreement, and 99-year lease.

FLOW and many organizations, appeared and testified before this Authority on Friday, March 6, 2020.  At that time, FLOW submitted a legal analysis and comment, dated March 5, 2020, and on March 6, 2020 made an oral presentation to the Authority that is part of the record in this matter.  I realize that there are new members of the Authority, so, I have attached a copy of this analysis in the “Chat Box” for your convenience and because of the limited time for public comment at this meeting.  Without waiving the several points contained in FLOW’s analysis and comments, today, I want to underscore the fact and law that the DNR Easement, the Assignment from you to Enbridge, and the Tunnel Agreement provisions calling for a 99-year lease have not been authorized under the rule of law of the public trust doctrine:

  1. These documents are subject to the GLSLA, 324.32502-32508 and rules, but to date the agreements and conveyance documents have not been authorized under the GLSLA;
  2. The DNR Tunnel right of way or Easement purports to be authorized under Act 10, now MCL 324.2129, for a public utility easement. However, the DNR has never authorized it based on the required findings under the public trust doctrine, an absolute necessity based on the position of the State, AG Nessel, and DNR in the Ingham County cases: Nessel v Enbridge; and State Governor and DNR Director v Enbridge.

Until this authority is obtained by Enbridge, no contracts should be signed, no monies spent, and no construction commenced; to do so, would be at MSCA’s and Enbridge’s own risk. For this reason, you, the members of MSCA, are requested, respectfully, to ask for an Opinion of Attorney General Dana Nessel, on the serious question of the lack of required authorization of the 2018 Easement, the Assignment of Easement, and the Tunnel Agreement/99-Year Lease Agreement for occupancy and use of the State’s sovereign public trust bottomlands and waters of the Great Lakes.

Thank you.  Should you have any questions, or your AG staff have questions, we remain available to discuss the same.

FLOW Deeply Disappointed in the State of Michigan’s Environmental Permit Approval for Proposed ‘Line 5’ Oil Tunnel in the Straits of Mackinac

Liz Kirkwood, environmental attorney and executive director of FLOW (For Love of Water), reacts to news today that the State of Michigan has granted environmental permit approval for Enbridge’s proposed Line 5 oil tunnel in the Straits of Mackinac:

“We are deeply disappointed by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy’s (EGLE’s) decision today to approve permits for Enbridge’s proposed oil tunnel in the Straits of Mackinac.

“EGLE’s permits ignore direct adverse evidence of the tunnel’s risk to surface waters, wetlands, public trust bottomlands, cultural resources, endangered species, treaty fishing rights, climate change impacts, local economic impacts, tourism, and public and private property. In addition, EGLE’s permits ignore feasible and prudent alternatives to the proposed tunnel. 

“EGLE’s action is directly at odds with the legal process underpinning the Governor Whitmer’s revocation and termination on November 13 of the easement allowing Line 5 to operate in the public waters and bottomlands of the Great Lakes. The governor’s November decision was based on determinations required under the Public Trust Doctrine. Those same findings, required by law, were never made for the proposed tunnel.”

Background:

Many years and legal and regulatory hurdles remain in the state and federal permitting process for Enbridge’s proposed oil tunnel, which might never be built, but continues to distract from the clear and present danger posed by the decaying Line 5 pipelines in the open waters of the Straits of Mackinac. 

Final approval of Enbridge’s proposed oil tunnel remains in doubt as permitting reviews continue by the  U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is assessing environmental impacts and alternatives, and the Michigan Public Service Commission, which is considering the project’s public need, climate impacts, and location. 

The proposed tunnel, at roughly 20-feet in diameter and 4 miles long, would house a new Line 5 pipeline. Enbrige’s goal is for Line 5 to continue for another 99 years carrying up to 23 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids a day through the public trust bottomlands of the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron.

Enbridge has a terrible track record of oil spills across Michigan from Line 5 and from Line 6b, which in 2010 dumped more than a million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River. 

For more information:

Enbridge’s Proposed Oil Tunnel Would Significantly Affect and Endanger Human Environment

Source of tunnel graphic: Enbridge’s 2020 application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood made the following statement during a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers public hearing on Monday, December 7, regarding the environmental impact of Enbridge’s proposed oil tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac.

The National Environmental Policy Act mandates Environmental Impact Statements (EISs) for all major projects that significantly affect the environment.

The proposed tunnel is, categorically, a major project and it will significantly affect and endanger the human environment. The scale, wetlands fill, landscape alternation, nearshore habitat, massive water withdrawal and chemical discharge of wastewater, and spoils represent both a major project and significant effects to the human environment.  I want to enumerate eight reasons why a full EIS is required to evaluate this proposed project.

  1. The location of the tunnel is in the heart of the largest and most valuable fresh surface water system in the world.
  2. The proposed project meets all 10 of the “intensity” factors indicating “severity of impact” under 40 C.F.R. § 1508.27.  Meeting just one of these intensity factors can necessitate an EIS.
  3. The applicant indicates that the construction of the project will use 5 water treatment additives for slurry conditioning, including bentonite, soda ash, carbon dioxide, sulfuric acid, and a flocculant/coagulant for removing suspended solids.  Enbridge notes that “additional polymer-based additives may be needed.”  The Corps must determine the composition of these additives and the risk posed by the use of all of these chemicals
  4. The proposed project will fill coastal wetlands – among the most biologically productive areas in the world – over 90 percent of the roughly 200 fish species that occur in the Great Lakes are dependent on coastal wetlands.
  5. Independent experts who studied Enbridge’s proposed tunnel plan concluded that it “raises serious concerns regarding the feasibility, integrity, and planning for the construction of the tunnel.”  More than 75 percent of the tunnel boring area is in “very poor” or “poor” quality rock conditions, the experts warned, also citing the potential for explosions because of the presence of methane gas.
  6. The State Historic Preservation Office has given notice that the recently disclosed evidence of potential submerged prehistoric sites requires a full evaluation.
  7. At this point in time, Enbridge has yet to issue a credible estimate of project cost.  The original estimate of $500 million was for a tunnel with a 10 ft diameter.  The proposed project would have an 18 – 21 ft diameter requiring the excavation and disposition of four times the material compared to the original proposal.
  8. Enbridge is explicit in indicating that the proposed project would extend the life of Line 5 for 99 years.  It will transport 23 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids daily, that when burned, will yield over 57 million metric tons of atmospheric carbon annually – more carbon than is emitted by the nation’s 3 largest coal plants combined.  This long-term investment in fossil fuel infrastructure is directly at odds with the broad scientific consensus that immediate steps must be taken to decarbonize the economy to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

It is difficult to conceive of a project more worthy of a full environmental statement.

O&WDM: Groups, Tribes Ask U.S. Army Corps to Reject Proposed Enbridge Oil Tunnel

Editor’s note: This is an Oil & Water Don’t Mix (O&WDM) media release.

Twelve organizations and Michigan tribal representatives today (Dec. 7, 2020) called on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reject the Enbridge Line 5 Straits of Mackinac oil tunnel project. If not dismissed now, the Army Corps risks a repeat of a July court ruling that threw out a permit in another major federal pipeline case.

In their submission of comments, the groups told the Army Corps that the permit for the tunnel should not be approved without a full review that evaluates the consequences of an oil tunnel for the Great Lakes, coastal wetlands, historic archeological finds, and navigation within the Straits of Mackinac.

“Enbridge’s proposed tunnel is a major federal action demanding a full environmental impact statement under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA),” said Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director of FLOW (For Love of Water), a Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City. “A review of Enbridge’s incomplete application reveals a highly controversial project with extraordinary impacts to coastal wetlands, millions of gallons a day of surface wastewater discharges and water treatment additives, underwater archeological sites, incomplete geotechnical studies for tunnel construction, lack of a credible estimate of project cost, and unprecedented climate change impacts to extend the life of Line 5 for the next 99 years.”

Official comments from the organizations come as the Army Corps holds a single public hearing today on Enbridge’s proposal for a federal Clean Water Act permit to construct the oil tunnel.  The Army Corps public comment period ends on Dec. 17.  It comes as the Michigan Public Service Commission and the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy also evaluate permit applications from Enbridge and follows a decision by Gov. Whitmer to revoke Enbridge’s operating agreement for the existing Line 5, citing the company’s history of failures and ongoing, incurable violations of the agreement.

“Line 5 will transport 540,000 barrels of oil that when burned will emit over 57 million metric tons of atmospheric carbon annually – more carbon than is emitted by the nation’s three largest coal plants combined,” said Kirkwood.  “Let’s not forget what’s at stake – a proposal to build a mega tunnel in the heart of the largest and most valuable fresh surface water system in the world.  It’s difficult to conceive of a project more worthy of a full environmental impact statement under federal law.”

The groups and tribal representatives warn that approving Enbridge’s proposed application would violate the same federal law that prompted the U.S. District Court in July to block a final permit for the Dakota Access pipeline in the Dakotas.  In the Dakota Access case, the court said the Army Corps must conduct a full review under the National Environmental Policy Act because it was a major federal project with widespread potential impacts, including threats to drinking water sources for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.

The Army Corps has yet to decide whether Enbridge’s permit application for the tunnel should be subjected to a full federal review that could include looking at other alternatives, including existing oil pipelines within Enbridge’s massive North America pipeline system.

Concerns with the tunnel proposal cited by the groups and shared with the Army Corps include:

  • Drinking water threat. Enbridge proposes withdrawing 4 million gallons a day of water and discharging 5 million gallons a day of water and slurry into the Straits of Mackinac. Nearby communities of Charlevoix, Mackinac Island, St. Ignace, Alpena, East Tawas, and Tawas City rely on Lake Michigan and Lake Huron for drinking water.
  • Geotechnical problems. Independent experts who studied Enbridge’s proposed tunnel plan concluded that it “raises serious concerns regarding the feasibility, integrity, and planning for the construction of the tunnel.”  More than 75 percent of the tunnel boring area is in “very poor” or “poor” quality rock conditions, the experts warned, also citing the potential for explosions because of the presence of methane gas.
  • Sovereign tribal and fishing rights. The Straits of Mackinac are the spawning and fishing grounds for 60 percent of the commercial tribal whitefish catch, which could be negatively impacted by the tunnel project and continued operation of Line 5 in the Straits.
  • Northern Michigan economy. Emmet, Cheboygan, and Mackinac counties would be heavily impacted by the tunnel project, straining police, fire, health emergency services, and rental housing that would typically go to seasonal tourism workers who constitute an annual $153 million payroll. Dust, noise, and intense trucking and machinery activity will also stress local communities.

    “Michigan deserves more than a rubber-stamp permit approval from the Army Corps,” said Sean McBrearty, Oil & Water Don’t Mix coordinator.  “What we need is for the Army Corps to follow the law and prioritize protecting the Great Lakes, our drinking water, and our climate. A Canadian company’s oil profits shouldn’t be more important than Michigan’s future.”

    Those submitting joint comments include For Love of Water (FLOW), League of Women Voters of Michigan, Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, Michigan Environmental Council, Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, Straits of Mackinac Alliance, Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, TC350, the Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority (CORA), the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, and the Straits Area Concerned Citizens for Peace, Justice, and the Environment.

    Oil & Water Don’t Mix is a citizens’ movement committed to protecting the Great Lakes and decommissioning Enbridge’s dangerous Line 5 oil pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac. More information: https://www.oilandwaterdontmix.org/about.

    FLOW Appeals ALJ’s Decision on Proposed ‘Line 5’ Oil Tunnel

    Source of tunnel graphic: Enbridge’s 2020 application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

    Source of tunnel graphic: Enbridge’s 2020 application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

    ________________________________________________________________________________________________________

    FLOW on Nov. 6, 2020, filed an appeal with the Michigan Public Service Commission of the October 23 decision by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Dennis W. Mack granting in part Enbridge Energy Limited Partnership’s motion to exclude critical evidence from consideration by the MPSC in deciding whether to permit the siting of Enbridge’s proposed Line 5 oil pipeline tunnel through public trust bottomlands under the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron.

    FLOW’s appeal seeks to allow evidence that the proposed, roughly four mile-long oil pipeline tunnel under the Great Lakes would commit the citizens of Michigan for another 99 years to the unnecessary generation of more harmful greenhouse gases. According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, greenhouse gas emissions already have resulted in the impairment of Michigan’s public health and natural resources – effects that will get worse unless CO2 emissions are abated.

    Nothing less than the authority of the MPSC to protect the people of Michigan, environment, climate, and public interest of the citizens of Michigan and the Great Lakes for years to come is at stake, according to arguments filed by FLOW and other intervenors and made orally at a September 30 hearing.

    “Authorizing a billion-dollar fossil fuel infrastructure project is fundamentally at odds with what science tells us must be done to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change,” said Liz Kirkwood, executive director of FLOW, a Great Lakes public trust law and policy center based in Traverse City. “Eliminating the determination of ‘public need’ when granting a Certificate of Necessity makes no sense.”

    FLOW’s appeal also contests the ALJ ruling that the MPSC need not make a finding of “public need” to transport up to 8 billion gallons of oil a year for nearly a century in an era of falling demand for crude oil and an economy rapidly shifting to renewable energy. The pipeline tunnel proposed by Enbridge is inseparable from the business of transporting oil through existing Line 5, the Candian company’s 67-year old pipeline that runs from Superior, Wisconsin, through Michigan and on to refineries in Sarnia, Ontario.

    Several market indicators suggest that investment in new pipeline infrastructure is highly questionable in light of clear trends indicating a precipitous drop in oil consumption in future years. Analysis released on August 9 by BNP Paribas, the world’s 8th-largest bank, reports “that the economics of oil for gasoline and diesel vehicles versus wind-and solar-powered EVs [electric vehicles] are now in relentless and irreversible decline, with far-reaching implications for both policymakers and the oil majors.”

    FLOW is joined by several other intervening parties in the case in appealing to the three-member MPSC to overturn the ALJ ruling. Lawyers filed a joint appeal on behalf of the Michigan Environmental Council, Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, and National Wildlife Federation, as well as a joint appeal on behalf of the Environmental Law & Policy Center and the Michigan Climate Action Network. Bay Mills Indian Community also appealed. Attorney General Dana Nessel also sought to support and join in the appeals filed by the groups and tribes.

    FLOW’s appeal requests that the MPSC:

    1. Reverse the ALJ’s granting of Enbridge’s motion to exclude evidence of public need and likely environmental effects and alternatives related to the new tunnel and tunnel pipeline and the intended purpose of the tunnel project to engage in business and operations to transport crude oil as part of the tunnel project and the existing Line 5 in Michigan; and
    2. Remand to the ALJ to take appropriate action to incorporate the excluded evidence into the discovery and evidentiary hearing that will be submitted as a full case to the MPSC for final decision and order.

    “We’re talking about water, climate, and the plummeting demand for crude oil,” said Jim Olson, FLOW’s founder and legal counsel. “The MPSC by law should fully consider and determine the effect on, and potential impairment to, the substantial risks, alternatives, costs, and damages, and the future of the State of Michigan under the public trust in the Great Lakes, environment, fishing, fishery habitat, and the communities, including tribal interests under long-standing treaties.”

    “Enbridge’s attempted private takeover of the public’s bottomlands under the Straits of Mackinac for the tunnel project breaches the state’s duty to protect the public trust in the Great Lakes and is not good for the climate or Gov. Whitmer’s goals as the nation and world turn to clean energy for survival,” said Kirkwood.

    Many groups, including FLOW and Oil & Water Don’t Mix, have articulated scientific and legal deep concerns about the Canadian pipeline company’s tunnel proposal and its lack of necessity, and risks to the Great Lakes, drinking water, the fishery in the Straits, Tribal rights, the Pure Michigan economy, the climate, and a way of life.

    In more details, FLOW’s appeal asserts that:

    1. The ALJ erroneously restricted the Broad Authority of the Commission under Act 16 by excluding review of the new or extended business and operations to transport crude oil through the new tunnel and pipeline.
    2. The exclusion of evidence of “public need” under Act 16 is contrary to the law and deprives the parties the right to introduce evidence on questions of fact related to public need.
    3. The State of Michigan has made new commitments to integrate climate change into government decision-making.
    4. The duty to consider and/or determine the likely effects and alternatives under the Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA) and its case law applies to the new tunnel and tunnel pipeline, and the intended purpose to extend the business and operations of Enbridge to the Straits and all of Line 5.
    5. MEPA requires an evaluation of feasible and prudent alternatives, including a “no action” alternative.

    Enbridge’s giant tunnel, at roughly 20-feet in diameter, would house a new Line 5 pipeline to continue for another 99 years carrying up to 23 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids a day through the public trust bottomlands of the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan connects to Lake Huron.

    For more information, see:

    Line 5 Oil Tunnel in the Great Lakes: Is the Die Cast for the Next 99 Years?

    Photo: Jim Olson, FLOW’s Founder and Legal Advisor, makes arguments in a Sept. 30, 2020, court hearing conducted online. The hearing considered motions made by Enbridge regarding the proper scope of the Michigan Public Service Commission’s review of the proposed Line 5 oil tunnel.

    _______________________________________________________________________________________________________

    By Jim Olson

    There was good news and bad news in a state administrative law judge’s October 23 ruling that addressed legal arguments over what the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) can and cannot evaluate when deciding whether to permit the siting of Enbridge’s proposed oil pipeline tunnel project under the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron. 

    First, the good news: Judge Dennis Mack rejected Enbridge’s attempt to escape accountability by restricting the MPSC’s review to the impacts associated with the mere installation of a new Line 5 oil pipeline into the tunnel after it is built. The MPSC must consider the impacts from construction to nearby surface waters, wetlands, and the overall safety of the location and construction of both the pipeline and the tunnel that would house it.

    Now, the bad news: The judge granted the Canadian energy pipeline giant’s bid to exclude evidence from the MPSC’s review that the oil pipeline tunnel would worsen the climate crisis and cause other environmental harm. The judge also excluded from the MPSC’s consideration of the public necessity to transport up to 8 billion gallons of oil a year for 99 more years in an era of falling demand for crude oil and an economy rapidly shifting to renewable energy. 

    Absent a successful appeal by FLOW or other intervening parties in the case to the three-member MPSC to overturn the ruling, as Julius Caesar said when he crossed the Rubicon, Alea iacta est—the die is cast.

    Clockwise from top-left: Dennis Mack (Administrative Law Judge); Spencer Sattler representing MPSC staff; Assistant Attorney General Robert Reichel representing the Michigan Department of the Attorney General; Chris Bzdok, representing Michigan Environmental Council, Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians; Christopher Clark representing Bay Mills Indian Community; Margrethe Kearney, ELPC attorney representing the Environmental Law & Policy Center and Michigan Climate Action Network.

    September Court-Zoom Drama

    Judge Mack’s ruling on the scope of evidence the MPSC can consider followed sharply divided legal arguments on September 23 in a Zoom call from lawyers for Enbridge, the Michigan Public Service Commission, the Michigan Department of Attorney General, Native American tribes, FLOW, and several other public interest organizations. The judge heard a wide range of legal arguments over the scope of the MPSC’s review of impacts, necessity, and alternatives to Enbridge’s proposed utility tunnel and tunnel pipeline. The tunnel would extend the life of Line 5 and facilitate the transport of as much in total as 800 billion gallons of crude oil through Michigan and under the bottomlands and waters of the Straits of Mackinac for almost another century. Nothing less than the authority of the MPSC to protect the people of Michigan, the environment, the climate, and the future public interest of the citizens of Michigan is at stake, according to arguments made orally and also filed by FLOW and others.

    Lawyers for Enbridge, in court and in their filing, pushed to strip the MPSC of its authority to review anything but a simple replacement of old plumbing with new plumbing for Line 5 in the Straits. In short, Enbridge argued that the MPSC could not evaluate any impacts from the massive tunnel, the need for the tunnel in a rapidly declining market for crude oil, or the billions of dollars in damage and cost from rising Great Lakes water levels, flooding, and collapsing of infrastructure in Michigan tied directly to the burning of fossil fuels and climate change. Rather, lawyers for Enbridge argued the MPSC could look at only the physical impacts of removing old dual pipelines and replacing them with a new pipeline put in a new tunnel in the bedrock and mixture of rock and soil under the lakebed.

    In contrast, the lawyers for intervening parties in the case—including on behalf of Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, Bay Mills Indian Community, Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, FLOW, Environmental Law and Policy Center, Michigan Climate Action Network, Michigan Environmental Council, National Wildlife Federation, Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council—argued for a broader scope of review concomitant with the magnitude of the proposed 99-year $500 million+ tunnel and new pipeline. They argued that the tunnel and pipeline are inseparable, and that it is a single project that would commit the state of Michigan to the environmental and public health impacts of the transport of up to 8 billion barrels of crude oil a year, carried from Canada under the Straits of Mackinac and back into Canada to Sarnia’s Chemical Valley cluster of refineries and chemical plants.

    Public Need, Public Interest, Public Trust, and a Private Tunnel

    Lawyers challenging Enbridge pointed out that Act 16, the law that defines the MPSC’s scope of review, imposes three standards and findings before a utility project like this can be legally approved: (1) the demonstration of need to realize a true public need; (2) safety and consistency with the public interest; and (3) the project is a reasonable alternative. Lawyers for FLOW and the other groups and tribes also pointed out that the MPSC has a duty under the Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA) to prevent and minimize likely impairment to the air, water, and natural resources, and the public trust in those resources, and to find there is no feasible and prudent alternative to the project. 

    The question of a public need for the project faces the reality of rapidly falling demand for oil and a sea change in investment toward renewable energy and a conservation economy. There are alternatives to continuing to risk the Great Lakes and our water-based economy, including the obvious use of excess capacity in Enbridge’s greatly expanded oil pipeline across southern Michigan to Sarnia that replaced the corporation’s aged line that ruptured and caused the devastating 2010 Kalamazoo River oil spill disaster. Lawyers for the tribes made clear that the environmental impacts of the proposed oil tunnel pose serious threats to tribal fishing and sovereignty over their treaty waters. Feasible and prudent alternatives clearly exist that are more consistent with the public interest of the citizens of Michigan, and the Michigan Supreme Court has made it abundantly clear that the state has a duty to comprehensively consider the likely effects and range of alternatives in deciding the necessity of a project like the century-spanning tunnel and pipeline. [Highway Comm’n v Vanderkloot, 392 Mich 159 (1974)]

    The public interest in this proceeding includes our environment, protected by the MEPA, but it is also defined by what the public trust in the air, water, and environment of our Great Lakes—an ancient, irrevocable legal principle that protects the overarching rights of the public to enjoy the Great Lakes for navigation, fishing, drinking water, sustenance, boating, and swimming. [Obrecht v National Gypsum Co., 361 Mich 399 (1960); Illinois Central R Rd v Illinois, 146 U.S. 387 (1892)] This public trust imposes an affirmative and perpetual duty on governmental agencies, like the MPSC, to protect these legal-beneficiary rights of citizens.

    Enbridge’s Narrow View of Public Oversight

    Enbridge tried unsuccessfully to avoid or narrow the MPSC’s review of the crude oil tunnel project last April, when it asked the MPSC to rule that the tunnel proposed today was covered by its ruling existing 67 years ago on the existing Line 5 pipelines in the Straits. Agreeing with FLOW and others, the MPSC rejected the attempt, and issued an order on June 30, as FLOW chronicled, that concluded, “the Commission finds that the Enbridge’s Line 5 Project involves significant factual and policy questions and complex legal determinations that can only be resolved with the benefit of discovery, comprehensive testimony and evidence, and a well-developed record.” [MPSC Order, June 30, 2020, Case No. U-20763]

    The October 23 ruling by Administrative Law Judge Mack rejected Enbridge’s argument that the authority of the MPSC was restricted to replacing the old dual lines with a new single line in a tunnel. The judge ruled definitively, as argued by the organizations and tribes, that the tunnel is inseparable from the pipeline, and the impacts and operation of both must be considered. On the other hand, the judge interpreted more narrowly the MPSC’s June 30 order that signaled a desire for a “well-developed record” on all of the complex issues involved in the oil pipeline tunnel project. The judge’s decision rejected arguments by the Attorney General, organizations, and tribes that the MPSC must undertake a comprehensive evaluation of the need, safety, impacts, and alternatives, including the inherent commitment by the state to permit the transport of nearly a trillion gallons of oil over the next 99 years, the lack of need for this oil, and the devastating effects of climate change.

    Context is King: Construction Project or Climate Change Nightmare?

    All of the parties in the case will be evaluating the effect of the judge’s decision to allow consideration of the impacts of the tunnel and pipeline construction, but exclude consideration of overall necessity, impacts, and alternatives of the century-spanning tunnel and pipeline project. Any party has a right to request a full review and decision by the three members of the MPSC itself. The parties, conversely, could choose to proceed in a hearing set for February 12, 2021, with testimony and evidence limited by the judge to just the impacts of building the tunnel and moving the pipeline. If the latter course is taken, then indeed Michigan will have crossed the Rubicon on the climate crisis and protecting the Great Lakes and ourselves from the worst of it.

    FLOW & Straits-Area Citizens Groups Call on State of Michigan to Deny Permits for ‘Line 5’ Oil Pipeline Tunnel in Straits of Mackinac

    Citing inadequate legal authorization, an incomplete application, and lack of a comprehensive state review, FLOW and two Straits-area citizen groups called today in formal comments on the State of Michigan to deny pending permits sought by Enbridge to construct and operate a roughly four mile-long tunnel under the Great Lakes. 

    The Canadian corporation’s giant tunnel, at roughly 20-feet in diameter, would house a new Line 5 pipeline to continue for another 99 years carrying up to 23 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids a day through the public trust bottomlands of the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan connects to Lake Huron.

    The comments by FLOW, the Straits of Mackinac Alliance (SMA), and the Straits Area Concerned Citizens for Peace, Justice, and the Environment (SACCPJE) came at today’s deadline in legal and technical comments directed to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) and Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The groups’ comments identify critical deficiencies in the project’s construction permit application filed in April, its legal authorization, and the review by state environmental agencies of expected impacts to wetlands, bottomlands, and surface water, including from the daily discharge of millions of gallons of wastewater during construction.

    “Enbridge’s attempted private takeover of the public’s bottomlands under the Straits of Mackinac for the tunnel project is not authorized by the state, not good for the climate or Gov. Whitmer’s goals, not good for public health, safety, and welfare, and not consistent with public need as the nation and world turn to clean energy for survival,” said Liz Kirkwood, executive director of FLOW, a Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City. 

    “We share the public’s deep concerns about the Canadian pipeline company’s tunnel proposal and its lack of necessity, and risks it would pose to the Great Lakes, drinking water, the fishery in the Straits, Tribal rights, the Pure Michigan economy, the climate, and a way of life,” said Kirkwood. “The biggest consequence right now of this proposed project is that it distracts the government from its duty to shut down the current Line 5 oil pipelines that pose a clear-and-present danger to the Great Lakes.”

    To date, more than 2,600 members of the public—including individuals, families, business owners, community leaders, organizational leaders, and others—have filed comments with EGLE urging the agency to reject Enbridge’s proposed tunnel permits. Many groups, including FLOW and Oil & Water Don’t Mix, have articulated scientific and legal deep concerns about the Canadian pipeline company’s tunnel proposal and its lack of necessity, and risks to the Great Lakes, drinking water, the fishery in the Straits, Tribal rights, the Pure Michigan economy, the climate, and a way of life.

    The comments Enbridge’s proposed oil pipeline tunnel submitted today by FLOW, SMA, and SACCPJE determined that EGLE:

    1. Cannot properly proceed on administering the Enbridge permit applications unless and until the December 2018 easement and tunnel lease have been authorized under the Public Trust Doctrine (PTD) and Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act (GLSLA);  
    2. Must undertake an analysis of the lifetime greenhouse gas emissions attributable to the proposed tunnel, particularly in light of Governor Whitmer’s Executive Directive 2020-10 setting a goal of economy-wide carbon neutrality by 2050. Extending the life of Line 5 for the next 99 years with  the tunnel project is fundamentally at odds with the reduction of greenhouse gases necessary to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.
    3. Is required to measure the benefits of the proposed tunnel against its reasonably foreseeable detriments, under Part 303 of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act (NREPA), which includes determining the:
      1. Public and private need for the project; and 
      2. Availability of feasible and prudent alternative locations and methods to accomplish the expected benefits from the activity; and
    4. Is required to comprehensively and independently consider and determine whether the tunnel project is consistent with protection of Michigan’s natural resources under the Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA). The state must determine whether extending the life of an oil pipeline that will emit approximately tens of  million tons of greenhouse gases annually for the next 99 years, under the state NREPA, “is consistent with the promotion of the public health, safety and welfare in light of the state’s paramount concern for the protection of its natural resources from pollution, impairment or destruction.”

    EGLE expects to issue its final decision on the oil pipeline tunnel permits and for wastewater impacts in late November and impacts to wetlands and submerged lands in early December. While Enbridge takes an estimated 5-10 years to study, seek permits, and build an oil tunnel, the 67-year-old Line 5 oil pipelines in the Straits would continue to decay and endanger the Great Lakes, jobs, and the drinking water supply for half of Michiganders. 

    “The unique characteristics of the Straits of Mackinac make the area incredibly susceptible to disruption and destruction if EGLE approves the permits for Enbridge’s proposed tunnel,” said Patty Peek, Chair of the Straits of Mackinac Alliance. “The surrounding wetlands, shorebirds, waterfowl, and aquatic species will be in jeopardy from the millions of gallons of wastewater to be discharged daily into the surface waters of the Great Lakes. Local drinking water wells may be polluted and/or drilling operations may imperil the aquifer. Missing information and a lack of specificity on applications cannot be acceptable. The risk to our precious waters is too great to allow this tunnel project to move forward.”

    For more information, see: