Indigenous activists and environmentalists scored two major victories over pipeline companies this week in quick succession.
On Sunday, two major energy companies in Virginia and North Carolina announced that permitting delays, economic concerns and legal challenges have caused them to pull the plug on a $8 billion natural gas pipeline. The Atlantic Coast pipeline would have traveled under the Appalachian Trail.
Only a day later, a federal judge ruled that the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) will be shut down for a thorough environmental review — possibly for years — and must be emptied of oil by early August.
Could a few significant wins for water defenders also spell trouble for Enbridge, the Canadian oil company facing criticism and lawsuits over its Line 5 oil pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac?
Enbridge, in addition to being the largest pipeline company in North America, is also a partial owner of the DAPL. The 27.6% stake it holds in the Bakken Pipeline System housing the DAPL translates to an investment of $1.5 billion.
Enbridge finalized that investment in 2016 — the same year that protests against the DAPL surged and led to violent clashes between indigenous people and law enforcement in North Dakota.
The Line 5 dual pipeline has transported oil across the Straits bottomlands for nearly 70 years. A 1953 easement with the state of Michigan allows Enbridge to operate under the choppy waters connecting Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.
Sean McBrearty, campaign coordinator for the anti-Line 5 Oil & Water Don’t Mix coalition, said Monday’s DAPL court order was a “monumental victory” for North Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
“Across the country, courts and government agencies are beginning to realize that environmental protections must be enforced to protect residents and our natural resources from the devastating impacts of further fossil fuel development,” McBrearty said.
However, McBrearty cautioned, Michigan’s struggle with Enbridge is unique and requires executive action from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to ultimately shut it down.
Enbridge’s adherence to the 1953 easement has been challenged in court by Attorney General Dana Nessel since last June, after the company’s negotiations with Whitmer fell through and Enbridge sued the state of Michigan.
As part of Nessel’s lawsuit against Enbridge on behalf of the state, a circuit court judge last week ordered the west segment to restart for an internal investigation. Enbridge must report its findings to the state within seven days of restarting the line.
The east segment of Line 5 must stay shut down while federal regulators investigate a bent anchor support. Enbridge is prohibited from restarting it until that investigation is concluded and the circuit court judge in Nessel v Enbridge gives the official OK.
As McBrearty notes, the two main steps Whitmer can take to force a shutdown of Line 5 is to join Nessel’s lawsuit to strengthen her case and/or call on the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to revoke Enbridge’s easement entirely.
The DNR is currently still reviewing the easement upon order from Whitmer last summer. There is no timeline set for its completion.
“Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline is subject to different authority than the Dakota Access Pipeline. The state of Michigan has jurisdiction due to the pipeline’s siting on public trust bottomlands and the currently challenged easement,” McBrearty said. “We hope that Gov. Whitmer is paying attention to this ruling and that she will act quickly to revoke Enbridge’s easement and protect our Great Lakes from a devastating oil spill.”
Sean Hammond, policy director of the Lansing-based Michigan Environmental Council (MEC) that is on the steering committee for Oil & Water Don’t Mix, said that the recent happenings are proof that opposition to fossil fuel can produce real results.
“Recent decisions made on pipelines in Michigan and across the nation prove just how serious people are when they demand an end to fossil fuel investment. Those demands have generated some serious results,” Hammond said.
“They’ve made clear fossil fuel infrastructure investment is economically inefficient and foolish, and they’ve made clear governments must recognize the rights of sovereign tribes and public trust protections on behalf of the people they serve.”
Michigan League of Conservation Voters communications director Nick Dodge spoke along similar lines. Dodge said that Americans around the country are taking notice of the dangers of fossil fuels — which is why companies like Enbridge are moving full speed ahead to build new, more permanent projects like the Line 5 tunnel.
“Across the country, state regulators, officials and the public are recognizing that investing in obsolete fossil fuel infrastructure is not in the best interest of our health nor our economic well being. This is precisely why Enbridge Energy is doing everything in its power to hastily jam through the Line 5 tunnel project and lock us into another generation of pumping oil through the heart of our Great Lakes,” Dodge said.
“We bear all the economic and ecological risks while Enbridge profits. Here in Michigan, surrounded by 90% of the nation’s fresh water, we should be investing in cleaner sources of energy for our future and the future of our children, not outdated fossil fuels that pollute our air and water and threaten public health.”
Winona LaDuke, executive director of the Minnesota-based indigenous environmental justice nonprofit Honor the Earth and a two-time Green Party vice presidential candidate, told the Advance she is worried that financial losses for Enbridge may mean higher risk for pipeline safety.
Honor the Earth has played large roles in the indigenous protests against DAPL, as well as against Enbridge’s major Line 3 replacement project in Minnesota. That project is facing significant backlash, especially from indigenous communities that would be affected by the new pipeline route and fear leakage from the still-operating old Line 3. The replacement project is currently still in the permitting phase.
“Fossil fuel and pipeline economics are shaking. Between the bankruptcies in the Bakken and the 100,000 laid off in the oil sector, the pipelines are becoming riskier investments,” LaDuke said Monday. “Enbridge’s 28% share of DAPL means that this adds to Enbridge risk. Since the company is self insured and losses are mounting as well as resistance, Enbridge’s ability to protect our water and [ensure] pipeline safety is more at risk.”
But Enbridge spokesperson Ryan Duffy pushed back against any suggestions that the DAPL court decision will be affecting Enbridge’s current projects or ability to pay for them.
“We are committed to paying the full cost of the Great Lakes Tunnel Project, $500 million, and that has not changed. We have already spent approximately $50 million on the project,” Duffy told the Advance Monday, adding that the Line 5 project is needed in Michigan “now more than ever.”
On DAPL, Duffy said the line has “operated safely since 2017 and the priority for us and our partners is to ensure the pipeline gets back up and running as soon as possible.” He said the company does not anticipate a material financial impact from the shutdown.
“Our assets in the region will help to optimize and redirect flows in the meantime,” Duffy said.