The Line 5 oil pipeline that winds through Wisconsin and Michigan won a key permit this month: pending federal studies and approvals, Canada-based Enbridge Energy will build a new section of pipeline and tunnel under the Great Lakes despite widespread indigenous opposition. You may not have heard of Line 5, but over the next few years, the controversy surrounding the 645-mile pipeline is expected to intensify.
The 70-year-old pipeline stretches from Superior, Wisconsin, through Michigan to Sarnia, Ontario, and carries up to 540,000 gallons of oil and natural gas liquids per day. It is part of a network of more than 3,000 miles of pipelines the company operates throughout the US and Canada, including the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota where hundreds of opponents have arrested or cited in 2021 for protesting construction, including citizens and members of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians and White Earth Band of Ojibwe.
Now Enbridge Energy, with the support of the Canadian government, is seeking approval to build a new $500 million canal to replace an underwater section of Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac, while facing lawsuits brought by dozens of indigenous nations supported, as well as the state of Michigan.
A major concern is the risk of the aging pipeline for the Great Lakes, which represents more than a fifth of the world’s fresh surface water. Environmental concerns are so great that three years ago Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer ordered Enbridge’s twin pipelines that run for 4 miles at the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac to cease operations.
“The state is rescinding the easement for the violation of the public trust doctrine, given the unreasonable risk that the continued operation of the dual pipelines poses to the Great Lakes,” the governor’s office said at the time.
The move came just a year after the Bad River Band Tribal Nation filed a lawsuit against Enbridge over another, separate section of Line 5 in Wisconsin located over 12 miles from the Bad River Reservation. The pipeline was installed in 1953 and at the time received the authority to do so from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
But the easements lapsed, and in a court filing, the tribal nation said the company “continued to operate the pipeline as if it had an indefinite right to do so,” despite federal law that prohibits the renewal of expired right-of-way permits on Indian land and will require Enbridge to obtain new permits and approvals from the Band.
Bad River scored a key victory last summer when a Wisconsin judge ruled that the company must shut down the portion of its pipeline that violates the reservation by 2026.
Enbridge has resisted calls to halt Line 5 operations. Instead, the company is appealing the Wisconsin judge’s decision, arguing that building a new pipeline 100 feet below the lake bed through the Straits of Mackinac would virtually eliminate the chance of a spill.
“Rule 5 poses little risk to natural and cultural resources, nor does it endanger the way of life of indigenous communities,” said Ryan Duffy, spokesperson for the company. “Line 5 is operated safely and placing the line in a tunnel far below the lakebed at the Straits of Mackinac will only serve to make a safe pipeline safer.”
To that end, Enbridge successfully appeared before the Michigan Public Service Commission, the state’s top energy regulator, this month and won permission to build a new concrete tunnel under the canal connecting Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. The commission cited the need for the light crude oil and natural gas liquids the pipeline transports and said other alternatives such as driving, trucking or shipping by ship or rail would increase the risk of a spill.
The commission’s approval contradicts Governor Whitmer’s efforts to shut down the pipeline. In the wake of the permit, the governor’s office told reporters the state commission is “independent”. Both of the governor’s appointees to the council voted in favor of the permit.
The approval doesn’t mean the project will go ahead, but it’s encouraging for the company as it seeks federal approval. The US Army Corps of Engineers is in the process of compiling a draft environmental impact statement for the project. This document is expected to be published only in the spring of 2025.
Meanwhile, Line 5 has received a lot of support from the government of Canada, where Enbridge Energy is based. The government did repeatedly invoked an energy treaty of 1977 between the US and Canada to defend the pipeline.
This is frustrating for indigenous people who have seen their treaty rights repeatedly violated.
“What we’re simply trying to continue to preserve and protect is an indigenous way of life, which is the same that our ancestors tried to preserve and protect when they first entered into those treaty negotiations,” said Bay Area Chairwoman Whitney Gravelle . Mills Indian Community, one of several tribal nations opposing Line 5.
The Strait is also the site of Anishinaabe creation stories, the waters from which the Great Turtle emerged to create Turtle Island, now called North America. Gravelle said maintaining clean lakes where indigenous people can fish is about more than just the right to fish. It is about the continuation of culture.
“It’s about being able to learn from your parents and your elders about what fishing means to your people, whether it’s in ceremony or in tradition or in oral storytelling, and then understanding the role that fish has in you community play,” she said.
Last summer, José Francisco Calí Tzay, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, called for the pipeline’s operations to be suspended “until the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples affected is secured.” Free, prior and informed consent is a right guaranteed to indigenous peoples under international law that states that governments must consult indigenous nations in good faith to obtain their consent before undertaking projects that affect their lands and resources—permission that Bad River, for example, has refused to to give
“Canada is advocating for the pipeline to continue operations, following the decision of a parliamentary committee that did not hear testimony from the affected indigenous peoples,” Calí Tzay wrote, adding that the country’s support for the pipeline contradicted its international commitments to mitigate climate change in addition to the risk of a “catastrophic spill.”
Part of what makes Line 5 such a flashpoint is the importance of the Great Lakes and Enbridge’s spotless environmental record. As the Guardian reported last monththe Great Lakes “stretch beyond horizons, collectively covering an area the size of the United Kingdom and providing drinking water for a third of all Canadians and one in 10 Americans.”
In 2010, two separate pipelines operated by Enbridge ruptured, spilling more than a million gallons of oil between them into rivers in Michigan and Illinois. The Environmental Protection Agency found that Enbridge was at fault not only for failing to maintain the pipeline, but also for restarting the pipeline after alarms went off without checking to see if it had failed. The company finally reached a settlement of $177 million with federal regulators about the disaster.
A 2017 National Wildlife Federation analysis found that Line 5 has leaked more than a million litres on 29 separate occasions. The section on the floor of the Straits of Mackinac was sunk by boat anchors fell into the lakesincluding from Enbridge contracted vessels.
Despite the concerns of indigenous peoples, Line 5 continues to gain momentum, in part because of the amount of energy it provides to the US and Canada and the countries’ continued dependence on fossil fuels. While the international community agreed to limit fossil fuels this month at COP28, there is no agreed timeline to actually do this, and consumer demand for affordable energy remains high, especially in light of inflation driving up the prices of food and housing.
Meanwhile, more than 60 tribal nations, including every federally recognized tribe in Michigan, have said the pipeline poses “an unacceptable risk of an oil spill in the Great Lakes.”
“The Straits of Mackinac are a sacred source of life and culture for tribal nations in Michigan and beyond,” the nations wrote in a amicus brief supporting a lawsuit challenge the pipeline.
For Gravelle of the Bay Mills Indian Community, the issue is deeply personal and goes beyond maintaining access to clean water and the ability to fish safely. Fishing is deeply intertwined with her people’s culture. When a baby is born, their first meal is fish, and when her people hold traditional ceremonies, they serve fish.
“Our traditions and who we are as a people are all wrapped up in what we do with fish,” Gravelle said. “Our relationship with the land and water is more important than any commercial value that can ever be realized from an oil pipeline.”