Oil & Water Don’t Mix with the Public Trust in the Great Lakes

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

By Jim Olson

In the end, their legal duty under public trust law, and the clear and present danger from the anchor strikes and currents of the 67-year-old dual oil pipelines, left only one choice for Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and her Department of Natural Resources Director Daniel Eichinger: Revoke and terminate the easement allowing Line 5 to occupy the Straits of Mackinac, as they did on November 13 in a strong and necessary action. 

The Governor and other top state officials have a duty as trustees under the Public Trust Doctrine to prevent unacceptable harm to the Great Lakes and the public’s right to use them. This duty lasts forever. By the very nature of its easement to use public trust bottomlands and waters in the Straits, Line 5-owner Enbridge accepted the easement subject to the state’s paramount perpetual duty to prevent injury to the public trust in the Great Lakes. The dual pipelines and conditions in 2020 surrounding it are not the same as the original understanding of engineers and State officials back in 1953, when Line 5 was installed in the open waters of the Straits connecting Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. Under public trust law, the Governor and state officials’ hands are not tied by what state officials understood and did 67 years ago.

Public trust law and circumstances would condemn any state leader, elected or appointed, for gross negligence and reckless breach of their trust duty if he or she failed to take action. When Michigan joined the Union in 1837, it took title to all navigable waters, including the bottomlands and waters of the Great Lakes. It took the title subject to an irrepealable public trust duty to prevent alienation of this title for private purposes and to prevent impairment of these trust lands and waters from impairment in perpetuity—meaning for present and future generations.

Attorney General Dana Nessel and her experienced and seasoned staff have been steadfast in enforcing the binding rule of public trust law that protects the Great Lakes and the public’s trust interests as legal beneficiaries. No matter what Enbridge argues, the Canadian company took the easement to use the bottomlands and waters of the Straits of Mackinac subject to the Public Trust Doctrine, recognized by the courts of every state and the United States Supreme Court, including in the landmark 1892 Illinois Central Railroad case

That decision revoked a grant of the bottomlands of Lake Michigan for a private industrial complex on Chicago’s waterfront because it violated the public trust law that protects the Great Lakes. Grants of easements or the right to use public trust lands and waters have always been, and always will be, subject to the inherent legal condition that it can be revoked when the risk or danger of devastating harm passes the threshold of a risk of impairment; that is, what would be an unacceptable set of conditions and danger to a reasonable, sensible person. 

Line 5 passed that threshold many years ago. 

To reach that conclusion, Michigan’s leaders dug into the facts, data, and studies finally disclosed by Enbridge after demands from the DNR, the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), and the Attorney General’s office, and the order entered by the Circuit Court for Ingham County last summer. The reality is that strong currents, anchor and cable strikes, storms, continued scouring of bottomlands under the pipes, the suspension of more than 3 miles of pipeline on 228 anchor posts screwed into the bottomlands as “repairs”—when, in fact, there has been an overall, massive design change in the structure—have put the dual pipes in the Straits on the brink. This danger is compounded by the fact that these newly discovered and uncontrollable conditions, events, and grave dangers have never been evaluated or authorized under the State’s public trust laws by any governmental agency.

Enbridge has enjoyed a nearly free ride, reaping several hundred million dollars a year in revenues from Line 5 the past two decades; the dual lines, in fact all of Line 5, are well past the safe and reasonable life of a pipeline built 67 years ago. The company now has 6 months to make the transition to a permanent shutdown of Line 5, and there will be little if any negative effect on gasoline prices and energy supplies, according to extensive research, as well as recent experience, when damage to Line 5 in the Straits caused it to be fully and then partially closed for several weeks this past summer. Meanwhile, the positive effect will be that all can rest more peacefully knowing that a bright line is drawn and the time is coming for Enbridge to adjust its massive North American pipeline network to meet any needs not filled by competing pipeline companies for crude oil at regional refineries. 

There will be plenty of jobs tied to the proper decommissioning of the lines, and more jobs in adjusting the existing capacity of Enbridge’s overall pipeline system in Michigan, like the extra 400,000 barrels of oil per day of design capacity in Line 78 that replaced Enbridge’s smaller Line 6B that ruptured in 2010 and devastated the Kalamazoo River. And clean energy will provide many more Michigan jobs than Enrbidge ever has, without risking the Great Lakes.  

A risk and economic study commissioned by FLOW and conducted by a Michigan State University ecological economist estimated that the damages from a spill or leak from the dual pipes in the Straits would exceed $6 billion. Although the concerns about propane supplies for customers in rural areas of the Upper Peninsula are important, the U.P. Energy Task Force propane report and other independent reports show that new competition and infrastructure adjustments for propane service in the U.P. should be encouraged and can be in place by May of 2021. Moreover, the reality right now is that the need for crude oil is rapidly declining because of the United States’ and the world’s shift to renewable energy to diminish the deadly, crippling, and unaffordable and irreparable damage from climate change.

This is not 1953, when Line 5 was built and color TV was a brand new innovation in the United States. This is not 2003 either, when Line 5 reached the end of its intended lifespan and Enbridge started adding screw anchors in an attempt to “repair” a failing design because of unanticipated strong currents in the Straits of Mackinac—well documented by data and science. This is 2020, a far different world, facing a climate crisis and global freshwater scarcity. It’s a world in which our leaders are elected to make hard decisions to protect their citizens, as any trustee has a fiduciary duty to do regardless of politics or popularity. The Great Lakes, and the protected public trust rights therein to drink, fish, boat, bathe, and otherwise benefit from these public waters, are paramount. 

Under public trust law, Michigan’s Governor, Attorney General, and DNR Director have put the public interest and good of all above the self-interests of a private corporation that will continue to survive only if it accepts that it is doing business in 2020, not 1953. Indeed, it’s time for all of us to accept and conform to this realization.

One comment on “Oil & Water Don’t Mix with the Public Trust in the Great Lakes

  1. Leo Forster on

    What a wonderful concise coverage of the problem and solution to a problem that has went on far too long past its due date. Thank you, Mr Olson!

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *