The political debate over how to regulate the fossil fuel industry in the United States is more important — and ideologically divisive — than ever before, as the 2020 election is fully underway.
One of the core arguments is over the need for and the ethics of energy pipelines. With 2.4 million miles of pipeline, the United States has more than than any other country in the world. And the oil industry isn’t done expanding, even with protests raging over the climate crisis.
Enbridge Energy is the largest pipeline company in North America. It is perhaps best known as a partial owner of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), the oil pipeline which fueled huge protests in 2016 and led to violent clashes between indigenous people and law enforcement.
The Canadian company’s Line 5 pipeline in Michigan and Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota both converge in Northeast Wisconsin and have been at the center of intense fights from activists and indigenous people for years. Michigan and Minnesota also happen to be the sites of the two largest inland oil spills in U.S. history, both of which came from Enbridge pipelines.
Last month, Wisconsin and Minnesota lent their support to Michigan’s legal fight against Line 5, which the company says is necessary to provide energy to northern Michigan.
“If you’re a state like Michigan or Minnesota, and you’re looking at two of the greatest lakes in the world, being faced with the possibility of an Enbridge oil spill [from] some 50- or 60-year -old pipelines, you’d be pretty worried,” said Winona LaDuke, a former Green Party vice presidential candidate and executive director of Honor the Earth, an indigenous environmental justice nonprofit based in Minnesota.
“And you should be.”
Both pipelines are more than a half-century old and facing structural issues. And environmentalists note that both have a history of leaks and carry major risks to ecosystems if a major rupture were to occur, even as the company says it’s taken precautions.
“This should be more of a national story,” said Jim Lively, program director at Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, a Traverse City-based nonprofit that opposes Line 5.
But Enbridge maintains both pipelines are environmentally safe and economically necessary. Spokesman Ryan Duffy points to the tunnel the company wants to construct around Line 5.
“The tunnel solution is the best long-term opportunity to secure the energy needs of the State while making an already safe pipeline even safer,” he said. “… Line 5 also supplies Michigan and regional refineries that provide the state with various fuels its residents rely on in their day-to-day lives.”
Duffy said Enbridge has taken the same approach with Line 3.
“After four years of regulatory and permitting review, the replacement of Enbridge’s Line 3 is the most studied pipeline project in Minnesota history,” he said. “It is a $2.6 billion private investment in the state’s critical energy infrastructure.”
With the backdrop of increased activism, such as this fall’s climate strikes held in Michigan and across the globe, some presidential contenders are starting to take notice.
Sanders also has publicly opposed Line 5 in Michigan. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, whose presidential campaign was centered around the climate crisis, spoke out against both pipelines before dropping out of the race in August.
“This fight … it was hard at first to get anyone to listen. Now, a lot of people are listening,” said Andy Pearson, the tar sands coordinator for MN350, the Minnesota branch of national climate activist group 350.org. “It matters when people who are in that position, on a big stage with national authority, see and really hear the issues that are important to us. Of course, we’d love to see other presidential candidates come out against it, too.”
Republican President Donald Trump has not spoken out on either pipeline specifically, but he did take executive action earlier this year to make it easier for companies to construct new oil and gas pipelines and more difficult for state officials to intervene.
The fact that the two pipelines run through Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota — which are all considered 2020 swing states — could raise the stakes.
Wisconsin was one of three “blue wall” states that crumbled for Trump three years ago, along with Michigan and Pennsylvania. It’s been a destination for some 2020 presidential hopefuls and next year’s Democratic National Convention will be held in Milwaukee.
As for Michigan, Trump has long considered the Great Lakes State as the “crown jewel” of his 2016 victory. It wasn’t a coincidence that he kicked off his 2020 bid in Grand Rapids in March. More than 20 current and former Democratic presidential contenders have hit the campaign trail in Michigan, which hosted Democratic debates in July and was just tapped to host a general election debate in October 2020.
“With the presidential debates, [candidates] were in Michigan and obviously trying to connect to Michigan issues, and this is obviously an important issue,” Lively said of Line 5.
But he added that “it kinda drops off the radar after a little while.”
Still, the question of how to best regulate pipeline projects is likely to become a bigger part of the climate change debate already raging in the election.
In Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, sustained grassroots efforts led by indigenous people and environmentalists to push back against Lines 5 and 3 have been active for years — long before they were even a blip on the national radar.
Their stories are more similar than you may think.
There’s been plenty of recent focus in Michigan on Line 5, the Enbridge-owned oil pipeline that lies under the Straits of Mackinac.
It was a major issue in the 2018 midterms with two Democrats, now-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel, promising to shut down the 66-year-old pipeline. Shortly before they took office, GOP now-former Gov. Rick Snyder struck a deal with Enbridge to encase the pipeline in a tunnel. That was supported by several trade unions, including the Operating Engineers and Laborers.
Duffy says the company is committed to working with stakeholders.
“Evidence of our commitment to work collaboratively includes the rock and soil sampling work [for Line 5] we are doing right now in the Straits which is part of our $40 million 2019 pre-construction work,” he said.
The issue has been tied up in legal battles, with the Court of Claims in October siding with Enbridge. In November, Minnesota and Wisconsin, along with California — filed an amicus brief to support Nessel’s push to decommission Line 5.
Both Minnesota and Wisconsin have clear interests in getting involved in Michigan’s Line 5 fight. Their attorneys general believe that precedents set by the Enbridge lawsuits in Michigan could very well affect their own states’ efforts to uphold protections of their natural resources, and vice versa.
In fact, a recent report commissioned by the state of Michigan demonstrated that this has already begun to happen. The Oct. 29 report reached its conclusion — that Enbridge might be able to evade paying for a Line 5 oil spill cleanup in the Great Lakes — primarily based on Enbridge testimony before a Minnesota regulatory body last year, in which a plan to replace the state’s Line 3 oil pipeline was being debated.
In Minnesota, residents and environmentalists share many of the concerns Michiganders have about Line 5 about their own Enbridge pipeline, Line 3, which was constructed in phases from 1962 to 1968.
Enbridge’s plan to construct a “replacement” Line 3 pipeline along a new route has been met with significant public backlash in the state, much like the company’s plan to build a new tunnel-enclosed Line 5 pipeline under Michigan’s Mackinac Straits.
However, Enbridge says that the replacement plan is the best solution for Minnesota.
“Replacing the existing Line 3 with the newest and most advanced pipeline technology will help protect Minnesota’s environment for generations to come,” Duffy said.
Since it is undisputed that structural integrity issues plague the aging Line 3, Enbridge continues to hold up the risks of operating it any longer as justification for a new and improved pipeline. The state’s primary regulatory authority on pipelines, the Minn. Public Utilities Commission (PUC), also cited this as the primary reason for approving the project last summer.
But since the proposed route would encroach on tribal treaty lands and even more environmentally sensitive areas than the current line does, tribal and environmental groups filed suit against the commission to shut down the project. A Court of Appeals decision successfully overturned the commission’s approval in June; Enbridge’s application in question has since been vaulted back to the PUC for another try.
Line 3 runs a short distance through North Dakota’s Northeast corner before passing through Minnesota. Enbridge has received all necessary permits to replace that North Dakota segment, but is holding back on building it until they receive the final go-ahead to construct the Minnesota segment concurrently.
For both pipelines, a groundswell of activists have been using everything at their disposal to outweigh the balance of power between them and a major oil company that wields plenty of lobbying money and influence. It remains unclear who will succeed in either case — and what an outcome for either pipeline could mean for future oil industry projects.
At the time of Line 5’s construction in 1953, Enbridge workers had estimated it would last safely for 50 years. Now approaching the 70-year mark, the 645-mile-long oil pipeline still continues to operate — and age — under the Mackinac Straits connecting Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.
Michigan is the only state completely within the Great Lakes basin, so there’s a lot to lose in terms of its economy and environment if in the case of a pipeline disaster.
The Enbridge line transports light crude oil and natural gas liquids from Wisconsin into the westernmost side of the Upper Peninsula, through the entire length of the U.P., then directly under the Straits of Mackinac, before meandering down the Lower Peninsula and finishing just beyond the Canadian border in Sarnia, Ontario. Although propane from Line 5 is sold in the U.P., Canadian refineries receive the bulk of the oil.
“Line 5 is a critical source of 540,000 barrels per day of propane and crude oil supply for Michigan and surrounding areas, and shutting it down would lead to a serious disruption of the energy market,” Duffy told the Advance. “Line 5 serves an estimated 55% of the state’s propane needs, including approximately 65% of the propane used in the Upper Peninsula and northern Michigan, for which no viable alternatives exist.”
But Enbridge has faced sustained public criticism for years over Line 5’s placement in such an environmentally sensitive area. Michigan residents and environmentalists worry about ruptures and leaks for the aging pipeline, arguing it would cause irreversible damage to the Great Lakes and its delicate ecosystem.
Sean McBrearty is the legislative and policy director for Michigan Clean Water Action and campaign coordinator for Oil & Water Don’t Mix, a coalition pushing to decommission Line 5.
“Here we are, 66 years after it was put in, still relying on this pipeline to not spill in what has been identified as the worst part of the Great Lakes for an oil spill,” he said.
Under the Straits, under the radar
The existence of Line 5 went largely under the radar in Michigan until 2010, when another Enbridge pipeline in the state ruptured.
Line 6B burst on a Sunday evening in June 2010, sending almost 844,000 gallons of heavy crude oil into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River.
More than 1.2 million gallons of oil were recovered from the water over the next few years, making it one of the largest inland oil spills in U.S. history – second only to the 1991 spill of Enbridge’s Line 3 in Minnesota.
Public calls to decommission Line 5 began after the 2010 incident, and were bolstered by a 2014 report by the National Wildlife Federation highlighting the dangers posed by underwater pipelines like Line 5. Indigenous activists from Odawa tribes in northern Michigan have maintained fervent opposition to the pipeline, alongside environmental groups like Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities.
Just before leaving office on Jan. 1, Snyder made it a priority in 2018 to find a solution that would keep Line 5 in service, while minimizing environmental risks. Enbridge proposed a plan, which became the basis of a new law, to construct a new tunnel-enclosed dual pipeline under the Straits in an effort to calm public fears about oil spilling into the Great Lakes.
In Snyder’s final weeks in office, the GOP-led state Legislature passed a bill to shore up the deal. By creating an independent authority — the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority — to oversee the construction of a tunnel to house a new Line 5 pipeline, Public Act 359 of 2018 gave a legal green light to Enbridge, while effectively tying the hands of incoming Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to reverse it. Snyder signed off on the law just days before his term expired.
Both Whitmer and new Attorney General Dana Nessel began taking action to fight back against the deal almost immediately upon assuming office in 2019.
Nessel challenged the validity of the Line 5 legislation with her first legal opinion as attorney general, stating that the law violates the Michigan Constitution. This gave Whitmer the legal go-ahead to halt all action on the tunnel project. It also set the stage for a lengthy court battle.
“We believe that the most effective path forward is to work expeditiously toward permitting and construction of the tunnel, rather than through the courts,” Duffy said. “… Enbridge remains committed to moving forward with the tunnel project which would invest $500 million into the State to ensure security of energy supply and reduce risk to the Straits to virtually zero, and could be under construction by 2021 and in service by 2024.”
Whitmer asked Enbridge to agree on a fixed date to decommission Line 5 within the next two years. However, the company insisted on uninterrupted operation under the Straits; Enbridge wanted to place the new tunnel-enclosed dual pipeline into service before decommissioning the old one, which wouldn’t be until at least 2024. Neither party budged. Enbridge filed a lawsuit against the state once the talks collapsed in June, seeking a ruling that would enforce the Snyder-brokered tunnel deal.
“Enbridge sued the Governor and walked away from the table; they’ve not come back since,” Whitmer press secretary Tiffany Brown wrote in an email.
Nessel filed a countersuit against the oil company soon after. Then in July, a Native American tribe in Wisconsin jumped into the legal fight against Line 5 by suing Enbridge to remove the pipeline segment that runs through its reservation on its way up to Michigan’s U.P. The lawsuit filed by the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa alleges that the company’s easements on the tribal land expired in 2013.
As legal challenges make their way through the courts, the tunnel project remains in flux. Most recently, the Court of Claims held up the tunnel legislation last month and Nessel filed to appeal.
“As you know, we are still in court. The Attorney General’s goal is to protect the Great Lakes by decommissioning Line 5 ONCE appropriate plans are in place to ensure energy access for U.P. residents,” Nessel spokesperson Dan Olsen wrote in an email.
Litigation is likely to continue for years.
“We’re highly skeptical that a tunnel will actually be built at all. It feels, to us, like a diversion,” said Jim Lively with Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities. “ … The longer they debate a tunnel, the longer they keep that existing pipeline operating.”
The story of Line 3 might sound familiar. It is no secret among Minnesotans that the 57-year-old pipeline called Line 3 is in poor condition; even Enbridge acknowledges it.
“The 350-mile segment in Minnesota and North Dakota is now the only portion of the line that has not [been] replaced with brand new pipe achieving the latest safety standards,” Duffy wrote in an email.
But rather than taking measures to repair the existing line or build another in the same spot, the company has proposed to leave the current Line 3 where it is and build a new, larger pipeline along a different path through the state. Enbridge announced the Line 3 Replacement Project — dubbed “L3RP” — in 2014. L3RP would carry almost twice the amount of oil currently transported by Line 3.
It has now been four years since Enbridge began its quest to collect all state permits it needs to construct L3RP. The company has since successfully constructed the new segments of Line 3 in Canada, Wisconsin and North Dakota. But state permits to replace the pipeline’s path through the largest area in Minnesota have been harder to come by.
The U.S. segment of the old Line 3 currently spans from the Northeast corner of North Dakota, through the northern half of Minnesota — comparable to Michigan’s “Up North” lake country — and into a pipeline hub in Superior, Wisc. On its way to Wisconsin, the old Line 3 bisects the Leech Lake Indian Reservation and crosses the northeast end of the Fond Du Lac Indian Reservation.
A new 337-mile-long replacement segment would transport crude oil and liquids along the existing route from North Dakota into Clearbrook, Minn., at which point, it would break off from the original path and dip south before meeting up at the Superior, Wisc., hub. The segment would still cross through the north side of the Fond Du Lac Reservation at its tail end, but would miss the Leech Lake Reservation and instead meander through wild rice-producing areas just south of it.
The old pipeline would be decommissioned in place.
Winona LaDuke helped found the indigenous justice group Honor the Earth and belongs to the Ojibwe tribe of the White Earth Indian Reservation, located in North-Central Minnesota, just south of the old Line 3. She says that although L3RP might cross one less Indian reservation, it would also risk at least 40 sacred wild rice-growing lakes with its new path.
“We are a people that live between water and soil. Half of our world here is water and half is soil … and all of that is put in peril by Enbridge,” she said. “That is entirely unacceptable.”
The company defends its process for replacing Line 3.
“Enbridge developed the project’s proposed route based on its extensive pipeline routing experience, knowledge of applicable federal and state regulations, and agency, tribal, landowner and other input,” Duffy said in an email.
He added that the new pipeline is needed to help the state meet its energy needs, as Minnesotans consume more than 12.8 million gallons of petroleum products every day. However, the new pipeline’s estimated capacity of 760,000 barrels per day would equate to almost 32 million gallons per day — which adds up to roughly 2 1/2 times the daily oil consumption of Minnesotans.
Andy Pearson of MN350 notes that “Minnesota is shifting already toward cleaner energy.” He argues that Enbridge should shut down Line 3 in phases to allow the state to continue that transition.
“You will know the chosen ground has been reached when you come to a land where food grows out of the water.”
This is according to the Anishinaabe-Ojibwe people’s Prophecy of the Seven Fires, which reflects why the tribe settled in the northern half of Minnesota many centuries ago.
According to the ancient wisdom, when the Ojibwe people were migrating west from where they lived along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, they came across manoomin (wild rice) growing out of lakes in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. They stopped here, because they had found the chosen ground.
“We were told to go to the place where the food grows upon the water. … That’s this,” LaDuke said. “… The Ojibwe have protected this area since we were placed here by the Creator.”
To this day, wild rice remains an intrinsic part of the spiritual and cultural identity of Minnesota’s Ojibwe people. In addition to being a major food source, it is also an economic staple, providing livelihoods for indigenous people who harvest the rice.
Preserving this sacred tradition is the reason behind the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa’s difficult decision last summer to agree to a new Line 3 pipeline through their reservation — rather than just south of it, as a previous route version had proposed. That previous version would have crossed through delicate wild rice lakes and tribal lands that the Fond du Lac Band did not feel safe putting at risk with a new oil pipeline.
LaDuke refers to the decision as Fond du Lac’s “‘Sophie’s Choice’ moment,” in reference to the famous novel and film in which a mother has to decide which of her children will survive the Holocaust. Pearson agrees.
“They gave the tribe the terrible choice of, ‘Which bad thing do you want to happen to you? Do you want it right on your reservation, or right on your tribal lands?’ … The tribe was put in a very bad position,” he said.
The expected date of service was originally 2017, but Enbridge’s timeline continues to be pushed back. The company now estimates the new pipeline to be operational by late 2020.
Who’s in charge
Although Minnesota has a new Democratic governor and attorney general, just like Michigan, state regulatory authorities like the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) wield the most decision-making power over pipeline projects like L3RP.
Nonetheless, Gov. Tim Walz continued the appeals process against Enbridge begun by his predecessor, Democrat Mark Dayton, when he challenged the PUC’s approval of the project this spring after taking office.
Walz has yet to earn the full trust of Line 3 opponents, however. While the Democrat has stated his disapproval of the project on the record, Pearson said environmentalists are concerned he’s courting both sides.
“When [Walz] has a chance to take action, he doesn’t do it as enthusiastically as Mark Dayton has,” Pearson said.
Multiple requests for comment from Walz’s office were not returned.
The PUC granted Enbridge its final project permit for L3RP in October 2018, rejecting most of the input the commission had received since the regulatory approval process began in 2015. It was a move that stunned opponents of the project. But Enbridge says that its process is safe.
“Once the replacement pipeline is operating, the existing Line 3 will be thoroughly cleaned, disconnected and deactivated,” Duffy said. “Segments under roads and waterways will be capped, sealed, and in many cases, filled with gravel to prevent caving in. We’ve used this same method across the county when deactivating a pipeline.”
But the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed the commission’s approval of the project this June, ruling that the environmental review included in the project proposal was inadequate. The state Department of Commerce has since filed a lawsuit against the commissioners who approved the project.
More rounds of appeals on the environmental impact are still playing out.
Some 2020 hopefuls have taken note of the environmental and native activists fighting back against these pipeline projects in key Midwest states.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee was the first of the presidential hopefuls to publicly oppose both Line 5 and its proposed tunnel in July, calling the project “a clear and present threat to the health of the Great Lakes and to our climate.” He’s since dropped out of the race.
Later that month, on the nine-year-anniversary of the Enbridge oil spill in Kalamazoo, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders also threw his support behind the Line 5 pipeline protesters.
“Today, with the climate crisis worsening, we must #ShutDownLine5 pipeline in Michigan and ban all new fossil fuel infrastructure,” Sanders tweeted.
McBrearty said that it made a difference.
“We’ve seen a huge groundswell of support [in the state] for a long time,” McBrearty said. “When Gov. Inslee and Sen. Sanders came on board with us, we did see a little bit more of that national profile.”
Sanders was the candidate to come out publicly against the Line 3 pipeline, releasing a video in January featuring indigenous activists in Minnesota speaking out against the project.
“The dangerous Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota would send a million barrels of tar sands oil — the dirtiest fossil fuel in the world — through the headwaters of the Mississippi River, tribal treaty lands and sacred wild rice beds. It must be stopped. #StopLine3,” Sanders tweeted.
“Back in Minnesota, people are feeling heard and encouraged by that,” Pearson said. “This fight … it was hard at first to get anyone to listen. Now, a lot of people are listening. It matters when people who are in that position, on a big stage with national authority, see and really hear the issues that are important to us.”
Requests for comment from the campaigns of other top presidential candidates — former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg — were not returned.
Meanwhile, President Trump has yet to weigh in specifically on Line 3 or 5. Republicans, who generally support using fossil fuels over renewable energy, have backed pipeline projects. When contacted, the White House deferred to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which did not return the Advance’s request for comment.
2020 as a turning point
The 2020 presidential election is now less than a year away.
The Standing Rock protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) are no longer a top national story.
Still, the heightened awareness of, and pushback against, oil pipelines is part of a larger struggle: one of a nation reckoning with its dependency on energy sources of the past, as it looks forward to an uncertain future in which climate change will bring increasingly dire consequences.
Decision-making and policy around building and regulating oil pipelines like Lines 5 and 3 could very well have far-reaching implications.
“It’s all one big Enbridge system,” said Jim Lively, the Traverse City activist. “So there’s some awareness that if we were to succeed in decommissioning Line 5, that it would actually put more pressure on Line 3. Enbridge would therefore need to put even more oil through Minnesota. … We’re all fighting similar battles in the same corporation — our outcomes could affect each other.”
While the earth grows increasingly warmer, due in large part to fossil fuel consumption, America still remains extremely dependent on oil, coal and natural gas.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, humans are now at a critical point in which we still have time to turn things around on carbon emissions, but there’s only about a decade to do so. This has been the rallying cry of many of the youth-led climate strikes and other environmental protests.
The 2020 presidential election looks to be a critical turning point for the climate crisis and the future of U.S. energy policy. The next president of the United States has immense power to shape both for years to come — and those years may be all we have left to take real action.
What it will it take to change our methods of energy consumption in the Midwest and across the country remains unclear, but national attention on statewide pipeline fights like Lines 3 and 5 could end up being key to moving the needle.