On Wednesday, President-elect Joe Biden made history in announcing former South Bend, Ind., Mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg as his choice to head up the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).
If confirmed, not only would Buttigieg be the youngest secretary of the department and the first openly LGBTQ cabinet secretary — he would also likely be the department’s first leader to publicly oppose Michigan’s controversial and Enbridge-owned Line 5 pipeline.
The DOT head matters for pipeline policy because the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which oversees the nation’s pipeline infrastructure, is housed within the department. PHMSA’s office is currently headed up by the controversial President Donald Trump-appointed Howard R. Elliott, whose replacement has not been announced.
At the very top, Buttigieg would be replacing Elaine Chao, current U.S. Secretary of Transportation and spouse of Republican U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Chao previously was secretary of labor under President George W. Bush. Trump nominated her for DOT at the beginning of his term.
In February, before Michigan’s presidential primary, Buttigieg signaled his opposition to the pipeline with a tweet: “With such a high risk of an oil spill under the Great Lakes, Michigan can’t afford to keep the Line 5 pipeline in operation,” he wrote. “In every community, we need new clean energy solutions to meet our climate crisis.”
That won praise from Attorney General Dana Nessel, a big Line 5 opponent, at the time. She declined to endorse anyone in the primary, which Biden won.
Former Democratic presidential contenders Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) also spoke out against Line 5 during their campaigns.
Before dropping out of the presidential race, Buttigieg also released a $1 trillion infrastructure plan with significant investments and climate change adaptations.
The significance of a Line 5 opponent potentially taking the realm of the federal department that oversees the pipeline is not lost on the state’s environmental activists, who have now fought for more than a decade against oil company Enbridge’s transport of oil in the Straits of Mackinac.
Christy McGillivray, political and legislative director for the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter, described Buttigieg as a “federal ally” in Nessel’s and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s fight to decommission the pipeline.
“We agree with Pete Buttigieg’s position on the operation of Line 5 — the Great Lakes cannot afford to keep Enbridge’s dangerous pipeline in operation,” McGillivray said. “It’s good to know that Governor Whitmer and Attorney General Nessel now have a federal ally ready to support our fight to shut down Line 5 instead of siding with Enbridge.”
A Nessel spokesperson declined to comment.
In a statement released by Buttigieg Wednesday, the former mayor thanked Biden for the nomination and uplifted the importance of climate change and looking at infrastructure through a long-term lens.
“Newer generations have a lot at stake in infrastructure policy that, by its nature, must contemplate both the immediate and the long-term,” Buttigieg said. “The question of how America will look by the middle of this century — the competitiveness of our economy, the security of our climate — for me this is not academic, it’s personal.”
Buttigieg hails from a Great Lakes state and his husband, Chasten, also hails from Traverse City, a short drive from the Mackinac Straits.
“The future of Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac is a state issue concerning the protection of our public trust resources, but having someone in the Biden cabinet who clearly wants to protect the Great Lakes and understands the threat of oil pipelines to public trust resources is good for Michigan,” said Sean McBrearty, legislative and policy director for Clean Water Action and campaign coordinator for the anti-Line 5 Oil & Water Don’t Mix coalition.
The legal fight between the state of Michigan and Enbridge has been ongoing since early 2019, but ramped up considerably after Whitmer dissolved the company’s 1953 easement with the state and ordered Line 5 to cease operations by May.
Enbridge filed a federal lawsuit soon thereafter to battle the order and keep the pipeline flowing. Its legal arguments in the case, similar to its arguments in previous lawsuits, hinge upon the PHMSA’s reliable green-lighting of Enbridge’s actions concerning Line 5.
Many of the arguments are also based on Enbridge’s underlying assertion that PHMSA, not the state of Michigan, has full regulatory authority over Line 5’s safety and operation.
With a Democrat (let alone an anti-Line 5 Democrat) potentially about to head up PHMSA’s parent department, Enbridge could find itself in a trickier position.
Enbridge spokesperson Ryan Duffy said in an email: “We look forward to working with the Biden Administration and Congress to meet the energy needs for America’s economic recovery.
“Enbridge plays a critical role in safely delivering clean, reliable and affordable energy to fuel the U.S. economy, and we are enabling a continued transition to a lower carbon future here at home, and across the globe via energy exports. That is why we have engaged in projects that trade out coal for much cleaner natural gas, and invested in hydrogen, solar and wind. As our name implies, we look to be a bridge to North America’s energy future,” Duffy continued.