Enbridge’s Federal Lawsuit Attacks State Authority to Protect the Great Lakes from Line 5

Michigan Gov. Whitmer deserves praise as she stands up to Enbridge and stands up for our public waters

Jim Olson is FLOW’s Founder, President, and Legal Advisor

By Jim Olson

The federal lawsuit Enbridge filed Tuesday is an attack on the State of Michigan’s sovereign title and authority to protect the public trust in the Straits and Great Lakes from Line 5. The federal government can regulate safety, but it can never control the location and use of the State of Michigan’s own public trust waters and bottomlands of the Great Lakes, except as it relates to navigation.

Michigan has never surrendered and could never surrender its public trust authority and responsibility to protect the waters of the Great Lakes from the clear and present danger presented by Enbridge’s old and failing Line 5 oil pipeline system. The public rights in navigable waters, according to Michigan’s Supreme Court, “are protected by a high, solemn, and perpetual trust, which it is the duty of the state to forever maintain.” 

State of Michigan Conducted an Exhaustive Review of Enbridge’s Line 5 Easement Violations

After a comprehensive, 15-month review of Line 5’s operations and potential for catastrophic harm from a rupture or leak in the heart of the Great Lakes, the State of Michigan determined on November 13 that Enbridge’s easement to use the bottomlands of Lake Michigan must be revoked and terminated because of “longstanding, persistent, and incurable violations of the Easement’s conditions and standard of due care.” The action represents a major milestone in Michigan’s environmental history.

The state’s title and public trust interest and duty in the Great Lakes have been established by the Michigan and United States Supreme Courts for more than 125 years. Every state received title to the lands and waters that were navigable at the time of statehood—for Michigan, 1837, including all of the Great Lakes and its inland lakes, rivers, and streams. The state’s public trust title in navigable waters and lands beneath them is a matter of federal constitutional principle. Once the state has title, it is absolute, cannot be alienated or transferred away, and the state as trustee determines the extent and nature of any activity or use of the public trust waters and lands of the Great Lakes.  

The public rights under the Public Trust Doctrine are protected, according to the Michigan Supreme Court, by a “high, solemn and perpetual trust which it is the duty of the state to forever maintain.” The state’s interest and its public trust responsibilities are held forever. Thus, any authorization, like the Enbridge  Line 5 easement granted by the Department of Conservation in 1953 remains subject to the state’s duty to protect the state’s title as well as Michigan citizens’ paramount rights that are protected by public trust law. The United States Supreme Court explicitly acknowledged a state’s paramount rights in the landmark case,  Illinois Central Railroad Co v Illinois, finding that a grant of property rights in public trust resources “is necessarily revocable, and the exercise of the trust by which the property was held by the state can be resumed at any time.”

Catastrophe Does Not Have to Occur Before the State Acts to Protect the Public Trust

When Enbridge received its easement for its dual lines in 1953, it did so subject to the state’s authority and duty to protect its sovereign public trust title and rights of citizens in the waters and bottomlands of the Straits of Mackinac. No private interest can be granted permission to use these public trust waters and bottomlands for any private or public use without the express authorization by law, and only if the state finds at the time the public’s uses and the public trust will be improved or not impaired.

Enbridge’s easement is basically a license to use these public trust lands and waters subject to revocation if there are dangers that would violate the public trust. If later it is discovered that conditions exist that were not initially understood or new information comes to light indicating public trust resources are at risk or threaten the public’s rights in fishing, navigation, boating, and drinking water, or recreation, the state has the inherent right to revoke the use.  No state nor its citizens has to wait until a catastrophe occurs before the state can revoke a use to protect this perpetual trust.

Only the State of Michigan, through its Governor and Department of Natural Resources Director and the Attorney General as trustees and “sworn guardians” of this public trust, has the authority over who, where, and when another person or corporation can use the Straits of Mackinac, such as Enbridge’s use for the dual lines in 1953 and in 2020. Because the circumstances, conditions, and events—anchor strikes, cable strikes, scoured spans under the pipes, and stronger currents—violate the terms of the 1953 easement and endanger the Straits and hundreds of miles of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, the state has every right to revoke the Enbridge easement. Enbridge’s use of Lake Michigan bottomlands has always been limited by the Public Trust Doctrine and the state’s perpetual authority to revoke the use when the public trust is endangered.

State of Michigan, not a Federal Agency, Controls the Public Trust Lands and Waters of the Great Lakes

Enbridge falsely claims that the safety code requirements under the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) supersede the state’s authority and public trust duty to protect the Great Lakes. The claim confuses the federal power to regulate a pipeline’s safety once it is built with the state’s sovereign authority to decide if a corporation or Enbridge can use the public trust lands and waters of the Great Lakes in the first place.

There is nothing in PHMSA regulations or any federal law that remotely attempts to assert control over the use of a state’s public trust lands and waters, nor could the federal government do so. The authority for use of these public trust lands and waters falls entirely within the authority and duties of the State of Michigan, and there is nothing the federal government, Canadian government, or Enbridge can do to impinge on this paramount public trust title and the rights of the citizens of Michigan in the Great Lakes. 

The bottom line is that the Great Lakes belong to all of us, and the State of Michigan is doing its duty as trustee to protect our public trust resources so that, now and in the future, we are assured the right to drink from, bathe, fish, and swim in, and boat upon oil-free waters. Alternatives exist for supplying oil and propane without spikes in fuel prices, but our magnificent fresh waters are irreplaceable. Please join FLOW in thanking Gov. Whitmer for standing up to Enbridge and standing up for our Great Lakes.

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Michigan Gov. Whitmer deserves praise as she stands up to Enbridge and stands up for our public waters