Tag: Michigan Climate Action Network

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.

Gov. Whitmer’s Michigan Carbon-Neutral Plan a Step Forward, But Bigger Steps Needed Now

Great Lakes from Space

A new climate action plan released by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is attracting both praise and calls for faster action from environmental organizations.

Announced September 23, the Governor’s plan calls for a carbon-neutral Michigan economy by the year 2050. That makes Michigan the ninth state to commit to a carbon-neutral economy.

“The science on this issue is clear,” Whitmer said. “Climate change is already affecting our state. Extreme weather has led to some of the wettest years in our state’s history, rising lake levels that erode our shorelines, and immense damage to public, private, and agricultural infrastructure. Rising temperatures and air quality changes worsen health problems and heighten COVID-19 co-morbidities. We cannot afford to wait to take action.”

But the urgency expressed by Whitmer is not fully embraced by her plan, which aims for carbon neutrality three decades from today, advocates say.

Jamesa Johnson-Greer, Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition’s climate justice director, called the timeline “conservative” and noted that Consumers Energy and DTE Energy, the state’s two largest utilities, have already committed to carbon neutrality by 2040 and 2050, respectively.

“We’re at a point in the crisis where we know we have the next 10 years to act to stave off the greatest impacts of the climate crisis … so we need to act now.”

According to her executive order, Whitmer’s plan also calls for:

  • An interim goal of a 28-percent reduction below 1990 levels in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025.
  • An Energy Transition Impact Project to assist communities in maintaining critical services and ensuring high quality employment for workers while moving toward a more sustainable future when faced with the closure of energy facilities.
  • A new Council on Climate Solutions to recommend opportunities for emissions-reduction strategies while focusing on targeted solutions for communities disproportionately being affected by the climate crisis. The Council and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) will work with EGLE’s Office of Environmental Justice Public Advocate to ensure fairness for and representation from underserved communities.

“We applaud Governor Whitmer’s commitment to a carbon-neutral economy by 2050,” said FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood. “By setting this urgently needed goal, Michiganders can tap into their innovative know-how to protect this peninsula we call home. The health of these waters hangs in the balance and depends on our affirmative commitment to addressing the climate crisis head-on.”

Despite limitations, the plan is a big step forward for a state government that failed to take significant action on the climate crisis under the previous governor, said Kate Madigan, director of the Michigan Climate Action Network.

“When we started the climate network five years ago,” Madigan said, “few leaders in our state were even talking about climate change and the rapid and equitable transition off fossil fuels needed to avoid worsening impacts. This silence and inaction were the results of the well-funded campaigns by the fossil fuel industry to create doubt and pressure elected officials to deny the climate crisis. Sadly, those campaigns delayed action for far too long. The action by Governor Whitmer shows that things have changed.”

Tribes and Environmental Groups Will Help Decide Fate of Proposed Line 5 Oil Tunnel in the Great Lakes

enbridges-line-5-under-the-straits-of-mackinac-4f9997139d321d60

MPSC seeks public comments online and at August 24 public hearing

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

By Jim Olson

Good news arrived recently for citizens concerned about Enbridge’s dangerous Line 5 pipelines that convey millions of gallons of petroleum each day, and the proposed massive new tunnel pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac — the very heart of the Great Lakes.

Administrative Law Judge Dennis W. Mack, who is handling the contested case for the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) on Enbridge’s application for the Line 5 tunnel and tunnel pipeline, issued a ruling August 13 granting intervention to participate in the case to several federally recognized Indian tribes in Michigan and key environmental groups, including FLOW, that petitioned to bring special knowledge and expertise to the case.

The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) granted intervention to a total of 13 entities, including four tribes — Bay Mills Indian Community, Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, and the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, providing the first three tribes listed with an opportunity to formally assert their treaty rights this way for the first time. The Nottawaseppi Huron Band, based in Calhoun County, will bring their knowledge and experience gained by living near the site of Enbridge’s disastrous Line 6B pipeline spill in 2010 into the Kalamazoo River watershed. 

The ALJ also granted intervention to five environmental organizations — the Environmental Law & Policy Center with the Michigan Climate Action Network, For Love of Water (FLOW), Michigan Environmental Council, National Wildlife Federation, and the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council — with reach across the state of Michigan, Great Lakes region, and nation. The Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority, Michigan Attorney General, Michigan Laborers’ District Council, and Michigan Propane Gas Association & National Propane Gas Association also were allowed to intervene in the case.

Enbridge filed a 17-page objection to the intervention by the organizations’ and tribes’ participation as parties in the case, taking the extreme position that since the MPSC granted approval in 1953 for the existing Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac, Enbridge doesn’t need approval now for the proposed half-billion-dollar tunnel and tunnel pipeline.

FLOW and other organizations filed replies to Enbridge’s objection to their intervening in the case, pointing out that the MPSC in June had already rejected the company’s attempt to cut off further review and obtain immediate approval of the project without a comprehensive review of necessity, public interest at stake, impacts, and alternatives to the massive project. Over Enbridge’s objections, Judge Mack recognized the significant interests and rights and the unique perspective and expertise these organizations and sovereign tribes will bring to the case.

The comprehensive review and proceeding before the MPSC will continue in stages addressed by a scheduling memorandum entered August 13 by Administrative Law Judge Mack. Legal questions involving the nature and scope of the review required by the MPSC governing laws and regulations, the Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA), and public trust principles that govern the Straits of Mackinac will be argued and decided between now and late October. After that, the case will proceed with discovery and exchange of information, direct testimony, rebuttal testimony, and cross examination of the testimony and evidence from late November until next summer, with a decision by the MPSC expected in early fall of 2021.

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Comment Now or at MPSC’s Aug. 24 Virtual Public Hearing

The Michigan Public Service Commission has invited public comments on Enbridge’s tunnel proposal through written submissions, as well as by telephone during an online public hearing scheduled for August 24, 2020. Oil & Water Don’t Mix, which FLOW co-leads with allied tribal and environmental groups, has created this easy tool for you to submit your comment to the MPSC opposing an Enbridge oil tunnel through the public bottomlands in the Straits of Mackinac. You also can sign up here or here to comment at the MPSC public hearing.

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See FLOW’s recent coverage of the Michigan Public Service Commission review of the Enbridge oil pipeline tunnel here: