Proposed project sidesteps the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act and public trust law
The State of Michigan was right this week to suspend consideration of Enbridge’s April 7, 2020, application for construction permits to dig an oil tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac and place a pipeline in it until the Canadian energy-transport giant corrects deficiencies, including the failure to consider viable alternatives to the risky project and to acknowledge pending litigation to void the 1953 pipeline easement.
Now state environmental officials should take the next step and advise Enbridge that it will continue to suspend consideration of the application until the company has applied for the required authorization for an easement to occupy state-owned bottomlands with a tunnel along with any construction permitting, according to formal legal comments submitted jointly on May 1 to the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) by FLOW and the Straits of Mackinac Alliance.
“We agree with EGLE that Enbridge’s permit application for an oil tunnel under the Great Lakes falls far short of complying with legal requirements,” said Liz Kirkwood, executive director of FLOW, a Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City. “But the bigger picture is that Enbridge is putting the cart before the horse by applying to build through state-owned public trust lands under the Straits.”
“Enbridge asking EGLE to consider a construction permit before it has the required authorization for the easement for the private takeover of the public’s bottomlands under the Straits of Mackinac does not comply with the public purpose and interests protected by the law that protects the Great Lakes. The company’s haphazard rush during the pandemic is alarming,” Kirkwood said.
Enbridge laid out its oil tunnel scheme in agreements reached with the former Snyder administration to replace the company’s 67-year-old decaying Line 5 pipelines in the open waters of the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron.
Enbridge, however, has not sought, nor received, the state of Michigan’s authorization under public trust law and the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act for the easement, assignment, and lease required by law to locate a risky, multibillion-dollar oil pipeline tunnel in the public trust soils and waters of the Great Lakes.
Enbridge also lacks authorization for these conveyances, lease, and agreements from the State Administrative Board, and failed to consider and determine the effect on and potential impairment to the substantial tribal property rights of the 1836 Treaty Tribes in fishing, fishery habitat, and other protected activities.
“Will the State of Michigan allow Canadian-owned Enbridge without authorization to claim and exercise a private right to control in perpetuity these bottomlands, soil, and the Great Lakes that must be held in perpetual trust for the benefit of the public? It’s unfathomable,” said Jim Olson, FLOW founder and legal advisor.
Public trust law also requires Enbridge to demonstrate its private oil tunnel, serving as a shortcut primarily to move oil from western Canada to refineries in Ontario would serve a public purpose in Michigan, and the Michigan Environmental Policy Act mandates consideration of oil tunnel’s potential impacts (including climate and greenhouse gas emissions) and feasible and prudent alternatives to the proposed project. Enbridge’s proposal to allow electrical lines and other infrastructure to occupy the tunnel is a bad idea that poses an explosion risk.
“We don’t think there is any way that Enbridge could conclusively demonstrate that a private oil tunnel in public bottomlands and waters designed to serve Canadian and overseas markets for the next 99 years would serve a public purpose in Michigan,” said Leonard Page, vice president of the Straits of Mackinac Alliance, a citizen group based in Cheboygan with members living on waterways that would be impacted by an oil spill from Enbridge’s decaying Line 5. “And a 10-year tunnel construction project does nothing to protect our members, local communities and businesses, and a way of life from the devastation of an oil spill that grows more likely every day that Line 5 keeps pumping 23 million gallons of oil through the Straits of Mackinac.”
FLOW, the Straits of Mackinac Alliance, Tribes, and many other organizations have called for the shutdown of the existing Line 5 based on the immediate threat to the Straits and the risks posed by the pipeline’s more than 400 stream and river crossings in the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. There is adequate capacity in the thousands of miles of the Enbridge crude oil pipeline system to meet its needs for Michigan and Canada without the existing Line 5 or a crude oil tunnel that would continue to risk 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water.