Take Action: Click Here to Urge Michigan’s Leaders to Shut Down the “Significantly Damaged” Line 5 Right Now
By Jim Olson
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.