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.

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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.

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