Enbridge’s request for federal approval of a Line 5 replacement oil pipeline in a proposed tunnel in the Straits of Mackinac should be rejected to protect the Great Lakes from the continued risk of a catastrophic oil spill and a pipeline that is no longer needed, 10 leading environmental and tribal groups said Tuesday in comments to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Citing a federal court orderon July 6 involving the Dakota Access pipeline that also involves Enbridge, the groups told the Army Corps it cannot give rubber-stamp permit approval to Enbridge’s massive Great Lakes oil pipeline tunnel construction project without conducting an environmental impact statement (EIS) as required by the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA).
“The biggest consequence right now of this proposed project is that it distracts the government from its duty to shut down a risky oil pipeline in the Great Lakes. Instead, we are talking about a proposed oil tunnel that may or may not ever be built,” said Liz Kirkwood, executive director of FLOW. “However, if Enbridge insists on this, then a full environmental review of this tunnel proposal is required. That’s what a federal court told the Army Corps, and that’s what we are telling the Army Corps. There’s no shortcut when it comes to potential risks to the Great Lakes.”
In their 22-page comment to the Army Corps, FLOW, Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, Straits of Mackinac Alliance, Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, TC350.org, Straits Area of Concerned Citizens for Peace Justice and the Environment, Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority (“CORA”), and Michigan League of Conservation Voters (“MLCV”) requested a public hearing on the proposed permit and a thorough review of the tunnel project under the National Environmental Policy Act. So far the Army Corps has failed to set a public hearing or undertake an environmental assessment of the proposal. A federal judge in July ordered the shutdown of the Dakota Access pipeline in Missouri after ruling in March that the Army Corps failed to conduct a full environmental review of the proposed pipeline project. Enbridge also has an ownership stake in the Dakota Access pipeline.
In separate comments filed with the Army Corps, five Michigan tribes with treaty rights to the Straits, said the massive proposed tunnel project is a threat to the spawning and fishing grounds for 60 percent of the commercial tribal whitefish catch.
“Whether it is a 67-year-old pipeline aging under pristine freshwater, or a proposed tunnel creating pollution and causing disruption to tribal fishing industries for years, Enbridge should not be allowed to cut corners and bypass a full environmental review, something that Line 5 has never had,” said Bryan Newland, president of the Bay Mills Indian Community. “We’ve seen the exemptions made and lack of thorough pipeline equipment reviews result in surprises of corrosion, dents and the most recent screw anchor damage. With the company’s lack of transparency and poor track record, moving forward with a tunnel is putting pipelines and profits above the safety of Michiganders and the environment, allowing a potential oil spill to continue threatening our Great Lakes.”
In their comments, the environmental groups cited numerous concerns with Enbridge’s tunnel proposal and said oil and propane supplies that are needed can be delivered by other means. Major concerns with the proposal include impacts on drinking water quality from millions of gallons of wastewater discharge and a potential oil spill, significant impacts on the local tourism economy, rental housing, public safety and health systems from a multi-year construction project. Additional risks include pipeline safety and financial exposure to the state from a tunnel abandonment by Enbridge or collapse, including the potential for an explosion involving hazardous liquids. Tunnel safety was cited in a 2019 letter by the American Transmission Company withdrawing any potential participation in the proposed tunnel project.
“This project tunnel project is a massive undertaking with huge water quality, coastal wetlands, drinking water contamination, and other impacts for the Great Lakes and Michigan,” said Anne Woiwode, Chair of the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter. “This involves a waterbody of international importance that is protected under the Clean Water Act and we expect the Army Corps to follow the law.”
For the past 6 years, Canada’s Enbridge has maneuvered the State of Michigan into rounds of back-and-forth letters, meetings, and agreements that have done nothing but delay any enforcement action to shut down Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron. After two pivotal hearings on Tuesday, June 30, however, Enbridge has begun to lose its grip on the fate of its dangerous twin Line 5 crude oil pipelines in the public waters of the Straits. Two hearings, and the State and its citizens are two steps closer to shutting down the unstable twin crude oil pipelines once and for all without replacement.
1st Hearing: The Michigan Public Service Commission on Enbridge’s Proposed Oil Pipeline Tunnel
On the morning of June 30, in a virtual public hearing with hundreds of participants, the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) approved 3-to-0 an Order that rejected Enbridge’s bid to avoid its obligation to prove it is entitled to locate and construct its proposed tunnel pipeline “in the public interest” and that it is necessary at this time in history. (See FLOW E.D. Liz Kirkwood’s reaction here).
The company argued that it didn’t need the MPSC’s approval of the pipeline tunnel because the State’s utility commission approved the necessity of the existing line in 1953. In an Order more than 70 pages long, the MPSC described the complexity and importance of the public interest and necessity for a crude oil pipeline in the Great Lakes in 2020, not 67 years ago. The Order included an outline of the depth of the issues posed by the tunnel proposal before the public panel, relying on extensive comments submitted by the Michigan Environmental Council and National Wildlife Federation, Michigan tribal governments, For Love of water (FLOW), Michigan’s Attorney General Dana Nessel, and many other organizations and citizens.
The submitted comments pointed to the overarching public interest and public trust in the Great Lakes, demand for crude oil, alternative routes, threats to the environment, and risks to the Great Lakes from climate change, such as high-water levels and damaged infrastructure. The Order requires Enbridge to prove under the scrutiny of the MPSC in a formal, trial-like proceeding that the pipeline tunnel proposal is in the public interest, necessary, and that there are no reasonable alternatives to shipping oil through its and North America’s massive pipeline system.
2nd Hearing: Ingham County Circuit Court on a Preliminary Injunction to Shut Down Existing Line 5 in Attorney General Dana Nessel for the People of Michigan versus Enbridge Energy
On the afternoon of June 30, after a 5-hour virtual hearing in Ingham County Circuit Court in Lansing, Circuit Court Judge James Jamo continued the temporary restraining order (“TRO”) he issued on June 22, shutting down the flow of oil through Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac. Enbridge argued that historical in-line inspections and video footage of scrapes to the exterior of the pipes and a twisted support structure designed to minimize damage from strong currents demonstrated the steel pipelines themselves were safe. Enbridge introduced a letter from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) that stated the agency did “not object” to restarting the pipelines “based on the assurances of Enbridge.” Lawyers for Enbridge told the Court that if PHMSA says it’s safe, then the State and Court have no jurisdiction or power to interfere with restarting the lines, and that Enbridge should be able to reopen the lines.
The Attorney General’s lead attorney told the Court that Enbridge hadn’t turned over all of the information related to Enbridge’s “assurances” to PHMSA and that the cause of the damage to the structure and lines remained unknown. He argued that without more information and independent review of what happened, there was no way Enbridge or the State could comply with the stringent due care and prudence obligations under public trust law to insure that the pipelines are not a danger to the waters, bottomlands, and people of Michigan. The public trust in the waters and bottomlands of the Great Lakes is derived from the State’s title granted to it when it joined the United States in 1837, and it can’t be impaired, endangered, or controlled by primarily private interests.
Judge Jamo probed Enbridge’s lawyers on whether PHMSA’s “non-objection” could deprive the State of its public trust jurisdiction by a letter based on only the assurances of Enbridge. The lawyers couldn’t give a clear answer, and by the end of the hearing it was clear that what PHMSA said was evidence of safety, was not conclusive of the broader duty of the State and the Court to determine whether there was a violation of the due care requirement to protect the public trust in the Straits.
At the end of the hearing, the Court continued the TRO issued June 22. On Wednesday morning, July 1, the Court issued an amended TRO, keeping the suspension of use of the lines in force, but allowing Enbridge to inspect the west leg of the dual lines in the Straits to see if it could be used in the near future “subject to any future order of the Court.”
Clearly, Judge Jamo has taken control of the risks associated with the location of crude oil pipelines in the Straits. The condition of the two lines has totally changed from 1953. Approximately 150 saddle supports (with 50 some more on the way) have been added since 2001 to stabilize the failure of the original lines because of powerful currents in the Straits. Two recent events damaged the coating on the west line and broke an anchor support on the east line. Enbridge inspectors were not sure what caused the damage, but they thought it appeared to be anchor strikes or other objects dragged by passing ships. This is alarming because this brings the total number of known strikes to dual lines to three in the last 18 months. It appears Judge Jamo is exercising due care in continuing the shutdown of the lines. He took the request for preliminary injunction under advisement. In the near future, he is expected to decide on a previous motion to rule that the 1953 easement allowing Enbridge to place the two lines in the Straits in the first place is no longer valid under the public trust laws that protect the Straits and all of the Great Lakes.
Ultimately, this case and the fate of Line 5 will turn on the reality that in 2020 the conditions and circumstances are not the same as 1953. The Line 5 twin pipelines in the water and across the lakebed are in the wrong place because of certain serious conditions that will continue to exist and cannot be controlled. Under public trust law, these lines and the easement that allowed them are no longer lawful. Attorney General Nessel did the right thing in filing this lawsuit—the lines in this location violate the public trust and constitute a public nuisance in the form of an “environmental ticking time bomb,” as the State has argued, that could go off at any time. How strong a current, how many near-disaster anchor-strikes or other errors will it take before the inevitable catastrophe happens? Now is the time to prosecute these claims to the right conclusion, a permanent and orderly shutdown.
In the meantime, Circuit Court Judge Jamo was correct in keeping this matter under his control and advisement, and to continue the temporary order suspending the use of these pipelines pending further proceedings. For the moment, the pumps and twin lines remain silent.
Photo above: MPSC Chairman Sally A. Talberg, presiding over the Commission hearing today on Enbridge’s proposed oil pipeline tunnel in the Straits of Mackinac.
FLOW E.D. Liz Kirkwood
The following statement can be attributed to Liz Kirkwood, environmental attorney and executive director of FLOW (For Love of Water), a Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City:
“The Michigan Public Service Commission’s decision today is a big win for all Michigan residents that upholds their public trust rights in the Great Lakes. The MPSC flatly rejected the untenable claim by Enbridge that it had somehow already received approval in 1953, when Line 5 was built in the Straits of Mackinac, for an oil tunnel it is proposing 67 years later in 2020. The 3-0 vote by the MPSC means Enbridge will not be allowed to dodge a full review of their proposed oil pipeline tunnel, including an August 24 public hearing, which is desperately needed in light of the potential impact on the Great Lakes and its regional economy.
“We applaud the MPSC for rejecting Enbridge’s declaratory ruling request, and instead, requiring that Enbridge’s application be reviewed as a contested case with a public hearing under Michigan’s Act 16. Enbridge now has the burden to show a public need for this proposed oil pipeline under the Great Lakes, ensure no harm or pollution to our public trust waters and lands, and fully consider feasible and prudent alternatives to this project. With society’s urgent need to tackle climate change head on and ensure freshwater security, Enbridge cannot show that its proposed fossil fuel infrastructure is a credible solution for Michigan’s 21st century just and equitable future.”
See FLOW’s additional coverage of the MPSC review of the Enbridge oil pipeline tunnel here:
In Enbridge v. Michigan, the Court of Appeals Hears Arguments on Constitutionality of Lame-Duck Legislation Fast-tracked under Former Gov. Snyder
Photo: Robert Reichel, framed in green rectangle, an Assistant Attorney General at the Michigan Department of Attorney General, addresses the Michigan Court of Appeals on June 3, 2020, via Zoom, in the case, Enbridge v. State of Michigan.
By Jim Olson
What may seem like dry legal arguments over the interpretation of a few words sometimes can have ripple effects on people, health, safety, and the environment.
Such is the case with arguments heard June 3 before the Michigan Court of Appeals over the fate of the proposed Enbridge oil pipeline tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac, which promises to leave a lasting mark on the future of the Straits and the people of the Upper Great Lakes. (Click here to watch a video-recording of the Court of Appeals hearing).
In December 2018, the Legislature passed Act 359 as the Snyder Administration prepared to leave office. The goal of the Act was to help Canada’s Enbridge build, lease-back, use, and operate tax-free a tunnel to house a new pipeline to replace its decaying Line 5 crude oil pipeline snaking across the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac. In March 2019, Attorney General Dana Nessel, in a carefully written opinion, ruled that the tunnel law was unconstitutional because it violated article 4, section 24 of the Michigan Constitution.
As a result, state agencies could not process matters based on the proposed tunnel law because the Attorney General’s opinion was binding on those agencies. A few months later, Enbridge filed a lawsuit against the State to nullify the Attorney General’s opinion and rule Act 359 constitutional and its tunnel pipeline deal valid, prevailing in the Court of Claims in October. The State appealed to the Court of Appeals for the arguments heard Wednesday and a decision.
State: Title of Tunnel Law Says One Thing, Does Something Else
The State of Michigan focused its argument in front of the Appeals Court on article 4, section 24 of the Michigan’s Constitution, popularly labeled the “title-object” clause, which prohibits the legislature from saying a law’s purpose is one thing, when the text of the law is about something else or when adding other things that are not incidental to implementing the law’s purpose.
Let’s give this some context. For example, the legislature cannot state in legislation that it is acquiring state land to establish and operate a public state park, then convey the land to a private corporation to build and operate the park. Or, given the same example, the state law cannot expressly say the project is a public park, then provide in the law for also using the land for a race-track, which is not incidental to implementing a public park, the law’s purpose.
So, there’s good reason for this provision of the state constitution, because it prohibits the legislature from duping others, including the public, into thinking the law is about one thing, when in fact it is about another or multiple things. In short, as our Supreme Court has said, the purpose of the “title-object” limitation is to provide “fair notice” to legislators and the public and to prevent “subterfuge” or deceit on affected persons and the public.
Enter the COVID-19 “Zoom” Courtroom of the Michigan Court of Appeals
On June 3, Judges Cameron, Boonstra, and Letica heard arguments from Robert Reichel, a senior, career lawyer for Michigan’s Attorney General Dana Nessel, and John Bursch, a lawyer for Enbridge, over the constitutionality of Act 359 under the “title-object” clause of the Michigan Constitution. There were no fireworks. Bob Reichel meticulously laid out the State’s two-fold arguments:
The title clause of Act 359 authorized the Mackinac Bridge Authority (“MBA”) to acquire and operate, or a new Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority (“MSCA”) to acquire and operate a state corridor utility tunnel for Enbridge’s oil pipeline and supposedly other utility electrical or natural gas lines under the Straits of Mackinac. But the provisions of the law itself authorized Enbridge, a private corporation, to acquire the bottomlands of the Straits, construct, transfer to the MSCA the title, but leaseback to Enbridge to control, occupy, and use the public trust bottomlands for 99 years, with little oversight.
The title clause of Act 359 has a single object, the acquisition and operation of a public bridge by the authority for public vehicles. The body of the law has multiple purposes or objects, including transferring authority for the tunnel and pipeline to MSCA, assigning easements, entering into the 99-year lease, requiring the MSCA to review and sign a tunnel agreement, third agreement, authorizing Enbridge to sublease and manage the tunnel space, and requiring the Attorney General of Michigan to pay Enbridge’s legal costs if the Attorney General on behalf of the people of Michigan objects to the lawfulness of the tunnel and pipeline [Emphasis added].
Enbridge Downplays the “Who” and Expands the “What” in Tunnel Law
John Bursch for Enbridge avec bowtie, argued that the title clause of Act 359 covered infrastructure connecting the Upper Peninsula to the Lower Peninsula, so the tunnel and pipeline are surely part of the purpose and object. He also argued that it doesn’t matter “who” does the project, as long as it’s a government agency doing it, so the MSCA has full authority to sign agreements and to satisfy the project described in Act 359. As to multiple purposes not squarely within the title, he argued they were germane to carrying out the project.
Robert Reichel exercised his right to rebuttal and pointed out that both the “who” and “what” mattered. In the “title” clause of Act 359, both the new Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority and older Mackinac Bridge Authority are authorized to acquire, establish, and operate a public project. But unlike the “title” clause, the body or provisions of Act 359 itself actually authorize Enbridge, a private entity, to control and operate the tunnel. After listening to arguments, none of the three judges asked any questions.
A Private Tunnel Project Paraded as a Publicly Operated One Is Subterranean Subterfuge
The way I see it, the scales of justice in this case tip precipitously in favor of the people of the State of Michigan and the integrity of the state constitution. The law should mean what it says, not what a lame-duck legislature concocts in the last weeks of 2018 to satisfy the desires embodied in self-serving agreements between Enbridge and the Governor’s executive office. Ironically, these agreements themselves offer up the violation of the title-object clause.
The 1952 law creating the Mackinac Bridge Authority provided for the establishment and operation of a public project, financed by the public, and managed and operated by the public through the MBA and Michigan Department of Transportation. The title clause of the 2018 tunnel law, Act 359, represents the same thing, a public utility tunnel, owned and operated by the MSCA, a state governmental body. In fact, the body of the law provides for a complex set of agreements, rights, and duties that hands the tunnel and pipeline control, and control of other utilities, and operation entirely to Enbridge with relatively little paper-shuffling control by the MSCA. Paragraph G of the Second Agreement, signed by Snyder and Enbridge in October 2018, contains this glaring admission:
The State and Enbridge agree to initiate discussions, as soon as practicable, to negotiate a public-private partnership agreement with the Mackinac Bridge Authority (“Authority”) with respect to the Straits Tunnel for the purpose of locating the Line 5 Straits Replacement Segment and, to the extent practicable, Utilities in that Tunnel (hereinafter “Tunnel Project Agreement”)… [T]he Authority would execute a lease or other agreements to: (a) authorize Enbridge’s use of the Straits Tunnel for the purpose of locating the Line 5 Straits Replacement Segment for as long as the Line 5 Straits Replacement Segment shall be in operation by Enbridge; (b) provide that Enbridge will operate and maintain the Straits Tunnel during the term of the lease on terms to be agreed; and (c) specify the conditions under which Utilities may gain access to the Straits Tunnel.
Nowhere in the “title” clause of Act 359 calling on the MSCA to establish and operate a tunnel does the law state that Enbridge will build, control, use, and operate a tunnel for as long as the tunnel is in operation. In the words of the Michigan Supreme Court, this does not provide fair notice to the log-rolling that took place in the last days of 2018. Worse, it constitutes a subterfuge and deceit on the people of Michigan that our constitution and courts prohibit.
Attorney General Nessel was right when she issued her opinion in 2019; Act 359 is unconstitutional. If Enbridge wants to build and operate a tunnel, let it choose to design and apply for the authorization and permits to build a tunnel for its private crude oil pipeline under the laws of Michigan that apply to and protect the waters and bottomlands of the Straits of Mackinac and the Great Lakes.
Thousands urge MPSC to bring Enbridge under rule of law to protect Great Lakes
By Emma Moulton, FLOW Milliken Intern for Communications
By Emma Moulton, FLOW Milliken Intern for Communications
During a three-week comment period that ended in mid-May, the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) received a flood of more than 3,100 public comments, with a strong majority firmly opposed, on Enbridge’s request to bypass the legal review process and plow forward with other permitting required to replace and relocate the decaying Line 5 oil pipelines crossing the Straits of Mackinac with a proposed 18- to 21-foot diameter tunnel housing a new pipeline.
MPSC spokesman Matt Helms called the volume of comments “definitely a high amount” even for an agency whose utility rate-setting cases sometimes draw intense public scrutiny. The submissions poured in from individuals, families, tribes, environmental groups, elected officials, business owners, political groups, and many others opposed to the Canadian company’s attempted legal maneuver.
Many comments, including from FLOW, highlighted deep concerns over due process, the rule of law, and tribal treaty rights in response to Enbridge’s request for a declaratory ruling that no approval from the MPSC is even necessary. The Canadian pipeline company justifies its request by claiming that a new, roughly 4-mile long tunnel through the bedrock and loose soil of the public trust bottomlands should be considered mere “maintenance” on the old Line 5 pipelines in the open waters that the MPSC approved 67 years ago.
It’s 2020, Not 1953, and A Momentous Decision Awaits
An overarching theme of the comments was that this is no longer 1953, when Dwight Eisenhower was president and color TV was new to America. Now climate change, water scarcity, privatization, and oil spills must be taken into account when considering this massive, new fossil-fuel infrastructure. The public comments demand that MPSC’s decision be based on actual necessity in light of societal clean-energy goals and public interest in a sustainable future. Line 5 only grows more dangerous with age, and it is decision time for Michigan’s leaders.
“There’s no free pass here,” said Jim Olson, FLOW founder and legal advisor. “The MPSC is charged with the responsibility of assuring this project is necessary and in the public interest of the people of Michigan in 2020, not 1953. The world has changed and with the current COVID-19 pandemic and global climate crisis, the MPSC’s decision will be momentous.”
Groups Point to Risks, Legal Tactics, Lack of Public Necessity
In their comments, many environmental groups spoke to the unacceptable risk a tunnel would pose to natural resources in Michigan. Several submissions cited the major catastrophe that would be unleashed by an oil spill under and gushing into the Great Lakes, including the damage to drinking water supplies, public health, jobs and the economy, public and private property, aquatic life and habitat, current and future generations, and a way of life in the Great Lakes State.
And the groups directly addressed the criteria the MPSC considers in weighing Enbridge’s request for a declaratory ruling. The Sierra Club, for instance, insisted that the MPSC deny Enbridge’s request, as it, “asks the Commission to ignore that its proposal is in fact to replace the dual Line 5 pipelines by building a new single pipeline, of a different size, in a new location”—noting that Sierra Club members from Michigan rely on the Great Lakes for their clean water and their livelihoods.
The citizen-led Straits of Mackinac Alliance questioned the necessity of the tunnel given the economic downturn here and beyond, writing, “Any projection of tunnel use beyond the next decade is highly speculative” due to Michigan’s change in oil demand. “Michigan’s need for oil products in 2020 is totally different than it was in 1953… Current demands for oil have dropped dramatically and industry projections for shale oil sources do not look promising. The shale oil producers may not be in business when the tunnel project is completed.”
Tribes Voice Concerns over Treaty Rights and Survival
Throughout the comments, there is a powerful presence of tribal organizations voicing their critical position on the request, most often citing the 1836 Treaty of Washington, which preceded Michigan’s statehood in 1837 reserved the tribes’ rights to hunt, fish, and gather throughout the territory, and asserted the need for an environment in which fish can thrive.
In addressing tribal rights, attorney Bzdok highlights the lack of tribal collaboration in the MPSC’s original 1953 decision on Line 5: “The Tribes – at least two of which will be intervening in this case – were the original occupants of the property that will be occupied by the project. They retain certain reserved rights to natural resources in the project area under the Treaty of Washington.”
On behalf of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, Tribal Chairperson Regina Gasco-Bentley states that the reserved treaty rights “remain central to our culture, economy, and physical and spiritual well-being. The Straits of Mackinac are the life blood of our Tribe. An oil spill or geologic mishap from tunneling under the Straits would devastate our Tribe beyond any economic valuation.”
Next Steps from the MPSC on a Line 5 Oil Tunnel
The MPSC through May 27 accepted any replies on the public comment that was submitted by the May 13 deadline. The public body expects to decide on Enbridge’s request for a declaratory ruling at a June or July meeting, or shortly after, according to spokesman Helms.
If the MPSC rightly rejects the request, then, according to FLOW’s Jim Olson, the MPSC in its review of Enbridge’s April 17 tunnel application 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” of Enbridge’s tunnel pipeline proposal under the Straits of Mackinac to replace its existing four-mile Line 5 pipeline on the lakebed.
Line 5 in Court: Watch Live on Friday, May 22, at 9 a.m. EST
The public can watch this legal effort by the State of Michigan to shut down Line 5, which is supported FLOW and other organizations standing up for the public trust in our Great Lakes. This case is set for oral argument at 9 a.m. on Friday, May 22. According to the Court, you may watch the hearing by tuning in to the livestream on Judge Jamo’s YouTube Channel.
After 6 years of stalling and unfulfilled promises by former Governor Rick Snyder’s administration and former Attorney General Bill Schuette, Michigan voters in 2018 ushered in new leaders—Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel, who pledged to end Line 5’s threat to the Straits, where Lake Michigan converges and collides with Lake Huron.
Last June, Attorney General Nessel fulfilled her promise to take swift, strong action to bring an end to the unacceptable, massive, catastrophic risk of damage to the Great Lakes posed by Enbridge’s 67-year-old Line 5 the Straits of Mackinac.
Growing Pile of Evidence against Line 5
The State of Michigan’s legal action comes in response to growing evidence of Line 5’s failed design, anchor strikes, strong currents, sloughing and shored-up pipelines operating beyond their life expectancy, admitted inability to clean up a spill, and a conservative, worst-case scenario rupture from an anchor strike (which actually happened on April 1, 2018, narrowly avoiding a spill) forecast to trigger more than $6 billion of measurable damages. Scientific studies show that a spill would smother several hundred miles of shoreline, affect up to 60 percent of Lake Huron’s surface area and a substantial portion of Lake Michigan, close drinking water and sanitation systems of cities like Mackinac Island, shut down fishing, kill fish and fish habitat, halt shipping, and cause irreparable damage and impairment of public uses, private property, businesses, and the ecological diversity of the upper reaches of two Great Lakes.
As the chief legal officer of the people of Michigan, A.G. Nessel filed a lawsuit, not just as an attorney, but as the named Plaintiff for the People of Michigan—she is bringing this action as Attorney General and on behalf of the citizens of Michigan to decommission and shut down Line 5 because of its unlawful breach of the public trust in the Great Lakes, failing design and imminent risks in the Straits of Mackinac.
Historic Public Trust Case the First brought by a Michigan Attorney General for the People in 60 Years
The attorney general’s action is truly historic. Why?
It has been 60 years since an Attorney General of Michigan filed a lawsuit to protect the paramount public trust in the Great Lakes and legal rights of citizens as beneficiaries to enjoy and use our waters for navigation, fishing, boating, drinking water, swimming, historic and biological research, and recreation. That’s right. It’s been 60 years since then Michigan Attorney General, later state Supreme Court Justice, Paul Adams won a landmark victory in 1960 in Obrecht v National Gypsum Co. (361 Mich 399 (1960)), a landmark Michigan Supreme Court case putting a stop to unauthorized industrial encroachment and risk to the public trust and paramount protected uses of our Great Lakes.
Cottage owners and citizens along the shore of Lake Huron filed a lawsuit to stop the encroachment of a large industrial loading dock to reach ships a quarter-mile into Lake Huron. Justice Adams intervened as a party in the case and aligned himself and the People of Michigan with the cottagers and citizens whose use and enjoyment of the trust waters of Lake Huron would be subordinated to the private use of the industrial dock and mining company. After an extensive battle in the lower courts and arguments in the Supreme Court, the Court sided with Justice Adams and the people of Michigan.
Writing for the Court, Justice Black, a lawyer from the shoreline City of Port Huron, foreshadowed the future battles over the Great Lakes:
The last great frontiers of Michigan’s public domain lie submerged between her thousands of miles of shoreline… [T]he courts of these inland coastal states may well brace themselves for a series of new questions having to do with the nature and alienability of sovereign title to such domain and the inevitable collision of riparian rights… with the sovereign responsibility [of the state] as permanent trustee thereof. These cases become a notable forerunner. (Id. 361 Mich at 403)
The defendant National Gypsum Corporation claimed the private riparian right as owner of lake frontage to build a dock into the lake as far as needed to reach deep-draft ships. Justice Adams and his allies argued that the private right was subordinate to the public trust rights of citizens. Reaching back to 100 years of court fights over the St. Clair Flats and Lake Michigan, and relying on the 1892 U.S. Supreme Court Illinois Central case that ruled the Great Lakes were subject to the public trust doctrine, our Michigan Court ruled that a private corporation could not subordinate or alienate the public trust in the Great Lakes:
No part of the beds of the Great Lakes, belonging to Michigan can be alienated or otherwise devoted to private use in the absence of due finding of one of two exceptional reasons for such alienation or devotion to non-public use.
* * *
No one… has the right to construct for private use a permanent deep-water dock or pier on the bottom lands of the Great Lakes… unless and until he has sought and received, from the legislature or its authorized agency, such assent based on the finding as will legally warrant the intended use of such lands. Indeed, and aside from the common law as expounded in Illinois Central, the legislature bids us construe its design and purpose ‘so as to preserve and protect the interests of the general public’ in such submerged lands and as authorizing the sale, lease, exchange or other disposition of such submerged lands when and only when it is ‘determined by the department of conservation that such lands have no substantial public value for hunting, fishing, swimming, pleasure boating or navigation and that the general public interest will not be impaired by such sales, lease or other disposition.’ (Id., at 412-413, citing and adopting Illinois Central R. Co. v. Illinois, 146 U.S. 387, 455-60 (1892)).
The Public Trust Imposes a High, Solemn Duty on the Government
Unlike other natural resource laws, the public trust imposes a high, solemn duty on the government to protect these waters, bottomlands, habitat, shorelines, and paramount public uses from private takeover or impairment (Collins v Gerhardt, 237 Mich 38, 49 (1926). The public trust doctrine imposes on the State as trustee “a high solemn and perpetual trust which it is the duty of the State to forever maintain.”). Justice Black and the Court agreed “with the attorney general that the public title and right is supreme as against National Gypsum’s asserted right of wharfage, and hold that the latter may be exercised by the Company only in accordance with the regulatory assent of the State. No such assent has been given and, for that reason alone, the chancellor erred in decreeing that National Gypsum might proceed with what in law has become, since entry of such decrees, an entry upon and unlawful detention of State property.” (Id., at 413-414)
So, in 2020 once again a collision looms over the right of a corporation to occupy for itself the state-titled trust bottomlands and waters of the Straits of Mackinac, the very heart of the Great Lakes, for its aged dual pipelines to transport crude oil to its private markets. It cannot do so without the assent of the State “in the absence of due findings” that the one or two of the narrow exceptions apply. In short, public trust law as one would expect does not authorize any deed, occupancy, or alienation of public trust bottomlands and waters except where there are findings that the private use protects and promotes the public trust interests and protected uses—navigation, fishing, boating, drinking water, swimming, and other recreational or ecological purposes—or that these treasured public trust resources have no such public value.
Courtroom Context on May 22
Let’s return to the present, May 2020. Like Paul Adams in 1960, our State Attorney General Dana Nessel and her lawyers Manning, Reichel, and Bock have filed briefs and will argue Friday that the 67-year-old Enbridge Line 5, like National Gypsum’s private industrial dock in 1960, is unlawful under the high, solemn public trust law and duties of government that apply to our Great Lakes.
The facts are undisputed. In 1953, after the legislature delegated authority to grant public utility easements over or under state lands, including our public trust Great Lakes, the Department of Conservation never made any findings that the easement to Enbridge for its dual crude oil pipelines (1) would preserve and protect the public’s public interests and uses, or (2) do not have substantial public value for navigation, fishing, boating, swimming, other accepted public trust uses. Without these findings, Line 5 must be terminated. The only way the Enbridge’s private use can be validated is for the company to apply to the State for findings in 2020 that the known risks of devastating unacceptable harm to the Great Lakes, communities, property owners, businesses and citizens is consistent with and will protect these paramount public trust uses, or that the Straits of Mackinac has no public value for these uses.
A Powerful Mix of Duty, Integrity, Courage on Display
We applaud Attorney General Nessel and her legal staff for their courage to take a stand in fulfillment of their solemn duty to protect and preserve the integrity of the public trust in our bottomlands and waters of or Great Lakes. Yes, this case is about integrity, and it has all the hallmarks to become the next historical milestone in the history and jurisprudence over the great frontier of those lands and waters between our shores.
Photo of the Mackinac Bridge and Straits of Mackinac by Kathryn DePauw.
The Michigan Public Service Commission should reject Enbridge’s attempt to dodge the legal review process required to replace and relocate the segment of the Line 5 oil pipeline crossing the Straits of Mackinac into a $500 million proposed tunnel pipeline project, according to formal comments filed Wednesday with the MPSC by FLOW (For Love of Water).
In a convoluted request, Enbridge on April 17 applied to the MPSC to approve a tunnel pipeline project under the Straits of Mackinac to replace the existing four-mile Line 5 pipeline on the lakebed. At the same time, Enbridge filed a request for a declaratory ruling from the MPSC that no approval is actually necessary, claiming the massive tunnel project is just “maintenance” of the 67-year-old dual oil pipelines already approved by the MPSC in a 1953 Order.
“Enbridge wants to circumvent the law by arguing that the 1953 Easement and Order authorized the construction of a tunnel and subterranean pipeline,” said Liz Kirkwood, executive director of FLOW, a Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City. “The truth is this proposed pipeline tunnel infrastructure intended to transport oil for another 99 years beneath the Great Lakes, the world’s greatest supply of fresh surface water, despite the plummeting demand for oil and the climate crisis, bears absolutely no resemblance in design or location to the original pipeline project approved in 1953.”
The MPSC on April 22 issued an order putting Enbridge’s application on hold and opened a public comment period that ended May 13 on the request for the declaratory ruling. The MPSC also set May 27 as the deadline for any replies to comments received regarding the declaratory ruling request.
FLOW’s comments cite several reasons why the MPSC should deny Enbridge’s request and go forward with a full and comprehensive review and determinations of the necessity, alternatives, and overarching public interest of Enbridge’s proposed tunnel and tunnel pipeline infrastructure project under the Great Lakes. The reasons for denial include:
Not maintenance – Enbridge’s proposal is not maintenance of a previously approved project but, under state law, a “new” oil pipeline to be located in a new tunnel that constitutes a “structure or facility” related to the pipeline in an entirely new horizontal and deep subterranean, vertical location.
Bear no resemblance – The location, magnitude, and nature of the proposed tunnel and oil pipeline infrastructure for the Straits bear no resemblance to the specific location and design incorporated into the former Public Utility Commission’s 1953 Order that approved the existing dual Line 5 pipelines 67 years ago. The 1953 Easement from the State of Michigan and the corresponding 1953 MPSC Order authorizes the dual pipeline infrastructure siting limited to the exact location on the lakebed floor, not a deep subsurface tunnel and tunnel pipeline proposed to be sited 60 to 250 feet below the Straits.
Not the legal successor – The Enbridge subsidiary Enbridge Energy, Limited Partnership, is not the legal successor in interest to the original 1953 Easement Agreement between Lakehead Pipe Line Company and the State of Michigan and the 1953 MPSC Order, and cannot rely on these legal documents to avoid a certificate of necessity review by the MPSC.
Inseparable – The tunnel and tunnel pipeline are inseparable in Enbridge’s own descriptions and assertions in this and other applications, and one cannot be applied for, nor approved, without the other.
Not authorized – Enbridge lacks a lawfully authorized property interest to locate or construct the tunnel and oil pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac. Because the bottomlands under the Straits are owned and held by the State in public trust, Enbridge is required to obtain authorization for a public utility easement from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and then obtain authorization for the conveyance and 99-year lease from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy under the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act.
“There’s no free pass here,” said Jim Olson, FLOW founder and legal advisor. “The MPSC is charged with the responsibility of assuring this project is necessary and in the public interest of the people of Michigan in 2020, not 1953. The world has changed and with the current COVID-19 pandemic and global climate crisis, the MPSC’s decision will be momentous.”
“We’re talking about water, climate, and the plummeting demand for crude oil,” Olson said. “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 Energy’s permit application is out of step with Michigan’s legal process, according to FLOW.
The Canadian energy-transport company has not even sought, let alone obtained, authorization from the State of Michigan for the easement 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. Nor has the company sought and obtained a certificate of necessity and approval from the Michigan Public Service Commission to locate the tunnel in the Straits of Mackinac.
“Until Enbridge receives such legal authorization from the State of Michigan, the Canadian company has no business applying for the construction permit, and many other permits and approvals, they would need to locate and build an oil pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac,” said Jim Olson, FLOW founder, president and legal advisor.
“To obtain state authorization, Enbridge has the burden to demonstrate conclusively that a private oil tunnel in public trust soils and waters designed to serve Canadian and overseas markets for the next 99 years is in Michigan’s public interest, which it is not,” Olson added.
Enbridge’s timing amidst the coronavirus pandemic is disturbing, because it fails to respect the public’s right to engage in meaningful public hearings at this time when critical state resources are focused on managing this unprecedented public health crisis.
FLOW joins our allied organizations in calling on Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to delay full consideration and public review of Enbridge’s oil tunnel applications until the State of Michigan emerges from its coronavirus shutdown.
“It’s important to remember that this proposed oil tunnel fails to solve the greatest threat facing the Great Lakes — the decaying Enbridge Line 5 oil pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac that continue to pump 23 million gallons of oil every day,” said Liz Kirkwood, FLOW’s executive director and an environmental attorney.
“A 10-year tunnel construction project will not prevent an oil spill disaster that grows more likely every day. The State of Michigan has a perpetual and paramount public trust duty to its citizens, not a private Canadian corporation whose uninterrupted oil transport threatens grave consequences for 95 percent of America’s fresh surface water supply,” Kirkwood said.
To alleviate the rising threat to the safety and economic security of Upper Peninsula residents, a state energy task force at its April 13 online public meeting should act with urgency to adopt, prioritize, and schedule the implementation of the 14 recommendations in its draft propane supply report. Swift action is needed in order to end reliance on the risky Line 5 pipeline, dismantle the Canadian energy monopoly over the Upper Peninsula, and secure more diverse and renewable energy choices, said FLOW (For Love of Water) in formal public comments sent Monday to state officials.
FLOW’s letter to the U.P. Energy Task Force, which Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer created last June, comes at the deadline for the public to review the March 20 draft report on propane supply options. FLOW is urging the task force to act immediately on both short-term and long-term recommendations for the State of Michigan to resolve the clear and present danger to public health and the Great Lakes posed by Line 5.
FLOW finds that the most reliable, secure, lowest-cost, and lowest-risk alternative for propane supplies in the short term is a combination of the recommendations on rail and truck, plus an increase in propane inventory in the Upper Peninsula. Highest priority should be given to recommendations with a full range of diverse alternatives that are not dependent on the decaying Enbridge Line 5 pipeline, which crosses the Upper Peninsula and the open waters of the Straits of Mackinac.
FLOW also urges the task force to evaluate all of the environmental and health impacts and risks that each alternative poses to air, water, and land resources. The Great Lakes and other natural resources remain at grave risk with the continued daily operation of Line 5, and impacts to these public trust resources must be fully considered in the final propane report.
FLOW also calls on the task force to expedite its work and complete its renewable energy plan in 2020, well ahead of its March 2021 deadline for reporting to the governor. Michigan and the Great Lakes cannot wait another year for more studies as Line 5 continues to age.
“The U.P. Energy Task Force draft propane report concludes that both short-term and longer-term feasible and prudent alternatives exist to decommission Line 5 and to secure reliable, safe, and affordable energy to U.P. residents based on adjustments within the energy system,” said Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director of FLOW, the Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City. “Given the current propane monopoly and lack of backup alternatives to Line 5, U.P. residents are exposed to substantial financial and safety risks. Moreover, Line 5 also poses unprecedented and devastating economic, environmental, and public health risks to the Great Lakes.”
With the help of the task force to prioritize recommendations and advance much needed energy planning, the State of Michigan can work as expeditiously as possible to decommission the aging Line 5 pipeline and transition to safe and affordable energy alternatives for U.P. residents.
The U.P. Energy Task Force, formed by Gov. Whitmer’s Executive Order 2019-14, is charged with “considering all available information and make recommendations that ensure the U.P.’s energy needs are met in a manner that is reliable, affordable, and environmentally sound.” The Order also directs the Task Force to examine “alternative means to supply the energy sources currently used by U.P. residents, and alternatives to those energy sources.”
The precipitating force behind this urgent energy analysis is Enbridge’s increasingly risky 67-year-old Line 5 pipeline, which has ruptured or otherwise leaked at least 33 times since 1968, and the failure to date to prioritize and assure a backup alternative for delivering propane in the Upper Peninsula. Line 5 is operating far past its life expectancy and continues to threaten the Great Lakes, public health, and drinking water supplies for thousands of Michiganders. With no backup plan for delivering alternative propane supplies to the U.P. in the event of a catastrophic Line 5 pipeline rupture, including in the dead of winter, the outdated pipeline also endangers the safety, security, and energy independence of Upper Peninsula residents who rely on propane to heat their homes.
Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Director Daniel Eichinger today set a 30-day deadline for Enbridge to submit key information regarding its ongoing violations of the state-granted easement conditionally allowing the Canadian company’s 66-year-old Line 5 oil pipelines to occupy the Straits of Mackinac.
Eichinger’s letter to Enbridge, which includes 20 questions to be answered by Feb. 12, is an appropriate step to conclude the DNR’s review ordered by Governor Whitmer last June, according to FLOW, the Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City.
“It’s a welcome sign that Director Eichinger and his staff appear to be wrapping up their Line 5 investigation by asking for all other information and documentation that Enbridge has in its possession or control,” said Kelly Thayer, Deputy Director of FLOW (For Love of Water). “At the conclusion of this process, these serious and continuing violations of the easement by Enbridge should trigger the state to shut down the dangerous dual Line 5 oil pipelines in the Great Lakes before it’s too late.”
FLOW commended the DNR for taking this step to restore the rule of law on Line 5, the oil pipelines running through the open waters of the Straits of Mackinac, which researchers have called the worst possible place for a Great Lakes oil spill due to the powerful underwater currents, strong waves, seasonal ice cover, and extreme difficulty in responding to an oil pipeline failure.
“It’s clear that Line 5’s original design in the Straits is failing, as the powerful currents scour the public bottomlands and undermine the pipelines placed there in 1953,” said Jim Olson, FLOW’s President and legal advisor. “Enbridge’s continuing addition of more than 200 pipeline supports constitutes a risky redesign that never has been evaluated or authorized under the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act and public trust law.”
The State of Michigan already has documented evidence on Line 5 of anchor strikes, exposed metal surfaces, and deep scouring of bottomlands that undermine the pipelines and even bend some of the newly installed supports. There also has been evidence of bending of Line 5 beyond curvature limits, Enbridge has failed to provide proof of liability insurance and other financial assurances, and missing protective pipeline coating and delamination.
FLOW filed formal comments in mid-November 2019 to assist the State of Michigan’s Line 5 review, citing new and ongoing legal violations by Enbridge and rising risk to the Great Lakes, jobs, and drinking water. In those Nov. 13 comments, FLOW called on the state to increase and strictly enforce the requirement for comprehensive oil spill insurance and terminate the 1953 easement that conditionally allows Line 5 to occupy the Straits of Mackinac, triggering the orderly shutdown of the dual oil pipelines as soon as practicable after securing alternative sources for residential propane in the Upper Peninsula (which a state task force is studying).
FLOW’s request followed recent revelations that Enbridge and its subsidiaries lack adequate liability insurance for a potentially catastrophic oil spill from the Canadian company’s decaying dual pipelines snaking across the public bottomlands, where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron. The new evidence further supports FLOW’s long-standing contention that Enbridge is operating Line 5 illegally while the risk rises to the Great Lakes, jobs, and the drinking water supply for half of Michiganders.
Until Enbridge has applied for and obtains authorization under the rule of law or Line 5 is shut down, FLOW urges the state to impose immediate emergency measures that reduce the flow of oil in Line 5 to its original limit of 300,000 barrels per day (1 barrel = 42 U.S. gallons of oil). Enbridge currently pumps 540,000 barrels a day through Line 5 in the Straits, which is 80% more than the original design approved by the State of Michigan.
Pending such authorization or shutdown, state officials also should implement more stringent requirements for a mandatory emergency shutdown, including when there is a wave height of 3.3 feet or more in the Straits or winds in excess of 18 miles per hour, conditions that render oil spill response equipment ineffective. Based on the level of risk from Line 5 to public waters, the state also should require Enbridge and its subsidiaries to secure adequate insurance, bond, surety and/or secured assets in the total amount of at least $5 billion, based on a study commissioned by FLOW that found that a Line 5 oil spill could deliver a multibillion-dollar blow to natural resource and Michigan’s economy.