On Mackinac Island, the Epicenter of the Oil Spill Threat, Attorney General Nessel Promises to Restore the Rule of Law
By Liz Kirkwood
MACKINAC ISLAND, Michigan – The biggest news coming from the Mackinac Policy Conference held here this week wasn’t even listed on the official agenda. Instead, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel made headlines in interviews conducted on the margins of the main affair.
Nessel’s message: She intends ASAP to keep her campaign promise to shut down Line 5, the decaying oil pipelines underwater in the Straits of Mackinac, just west of the island the Mackinac Bridge. The danger is imminent. Her legal duty is clear. The Great Lakes belong to all of us, not a private Canadian oil pipeline company.
And by the end of June, absent a satisfactory agreement between Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Line 5-owner Enbridge to decommission Line 5, the attorney general will take legal action. Her goal: halt the oil flow to protect the drinking water supply for Mackinac Island and half of all Michiganders and the lifeblood of the Pure Michigan tourist economy.
“How are we going to entice people to come here from other states with oil along hundreds and hundreds of miles of shoreline? With all due respect to Enbridge, this is a Canadian oil company. We utilize here, 5%, at very most 10% of the oil that goes through those pipelines but we take on all the risk,” said Nessel, in an interview with WWMT-TV in West Michigan.
“I’m tired of it and we can’t have a private company be more important than the natural resources and residents of our state. They don’t own us, they don’t own the natural resources in this state and I think it’s time that we had elected leaders in office that recognize that.”
It’s exactly the leadership Michigan needs to solve the environmental and existential threat posed by Line 5, while it continues to operate more than a decade past its life expectancy and pump whopping 80 percent more oil than the pipeline’s 1953 original design capacity. The majority of Michiganders, business leaders, environmentalists, and state and federal politicians all agree that Line 5 poses an unacceptable risk every day of operations, and that’s because Enbridge pumps up to 23 million gallons of oil through the heart of the Great Lakes, the worst possible place for an oil spill, according to a University of Michigan study.
Enbridge is desperate to continue Line 5’s risky oil operations. Why? Because Line 5 continues to be a critical piece of Enbridge’s Canadian tar sands infrastructure, not Michigan’s. Enbridge’s latest announcement is that the company thinks it could expedite completion of a tunnel by 2024 – by steamrolling through the environmental review process. But it’s 2019, and Michigan cannot lawfully waive environmental laws nor allow Enbridge to operate Line 5 for another five years, regardless of any proposed “safety measures” the company heralds.
Gov. Whitmer: Not Open to 5 More Years of Line 5 Risk
In response, Gov. Whitmer today declared the compressed 5-year timetable for opening the tunnel and shutting down the existing pipes in the Straits of Mackinac is not fast enough. “I think we’ve got a duty to get it out quicker than that, and I think that the attorney general feels the same way and that’s my goal,” Whitmer said.
What we do know is that Line 5 is a failing piece of oil infrastructure located in our Great Lakes and across 547 miles in Michigan where it endangers nearly 400 other water crossings. And let’s not forget what Enbridge still does not know: the feasibility of constructing a tunnel through the unknown geology under the Straits for its oil transport operations, which it wants to run for the next 99 years despite global trends to decarbonize and address the climate crisis.
The operation of the current 66-year-old pipelines must cease now based on the State of Michigan’s fiduciary duty under public trust law as held by the Supreme Court of the United States in the seminal 1892 case, Illinois Central Railroad v. Illinois: “The State can no more abdicate its trust over property in which the whole people are interested, like navigable waters and soils under them, so as to leave them entirely under the use and control of private parties.”
FLOW’s latest legal memorandum to the State of Michigan underscores this very point: the state cannot negotiate away its high, solemn, and perpetual legal duty by accommodating private interests that jeopardize waters, bottomlands, public trust, public property, private property, and public health of the citizens and tribes of Michigan. Public trust law simply does not allow Enbridge to continue operations of Line 5 in the open waters of the Straits of Mackinac, while this Canadian company contemplates building a new oil tunnel under our Great Lakes.
Gov. Whitmer’s and A.G. Nessel’s legal duty, which aligns with the campaign pledges both made in their quest to gain office, is to shut down Line 5 and protect the Great Lakes, which define Michigan, drive our economy, and provide drinking water to half the state’s population.
Take Action: Click here to sign the petition calling on Michigan’s elected leaders to stop the Enbridge oil tunnel and shut down Line 5 to protect the Great Lakes, drinking water, and the Pure Michigan economy. The petition is sponsored by the Oil & Water Don’t Mix campaign, co-led by FLOW and other groups and tribes committed to protecting our freshwater and way of life from a disastrous oil spill.