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Thinking rationally about Enbridge's Line 5 pipeline

Jul 6, 2017

For the Fourth of July, former Michigan attorney general Frank Kelley invited me to watch fireworks from the porch at the Captain’s Quarters overlooking the harbor on Mackinac Island.

From there, I could see fireworks simultaneously from Cheboygan and Mackinaw City, in addition to those being fired from a barge not far offshore from the island.

That was a show. But a few hours later, looking out at that beautiful expanse of water, I couldn’t help thinking about what I couldn’t see under the surface. Two oil pipelines under the straits between Lakes Michigan and Huron, collectively known as “Line 5.”

They are capable of carrying as much as 540,000 gallons of oil a day. Enbridge Energy, the Calgary-based firm that owns them, believes they are perfectly safe, and last week, the state of Michigan released a report that said Line 5 could operate into the foreseeable future.

The report was done by a company with the curious name Dynamic Risk. Now, it’s nice to know that they think Line 5 is safe, but not especially reassuring. For one thing, Enbridge thought its oil pipeline near the Kalamazoo River was safe before six feet of it ruptured seven years ago this month.

The resulting spill took years and cost more than $1 billion to clean up. It’s also worth noting that when the spill set off alarm bells at Enbridge, workers didn’t realize at first that a pipe had broken. They thought it was only blocked, and to try to clear the pipe, they increased pressure and pumped more oil into the spill. Earlier this year, Senator Gary Peters told me he’d asked the Coast Guard whether they could deal with a Line 5 break.

The answer was no. Talking purely conservative common sense here, there is no way any sane government should tolerate something that could easily destroy two of the greatest lakes in the world.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has something in common with Line 5. Both came into the world in 1953, 64 years ago.

Now, Schuette has called for the pipeline to be shut down, under a “specific and definite timetable,” which sounds very good, especially if you are running for governor, which he is. But it also sounds like a friend of mine who will cheerfully tell you that, yes, he needs to diet and start exercising, and that he intends to do exactly that. Yet he won’t commit to a date when he will start.

Nor will Schuette offer a date by which time Line 5 should no longer be in service. Now, a number of environmental groups have said the attorney general has the legal power to shut it down now.

Bill Schuette has not, to the best of my knowledge, weighed in on that. But we should demand that he, or any other politician wanting statewide office, say exactly what they would do with Line 5, and when.

The Dynamic Risk analysis they gave the state also presents several well-thought out safer options, complete with costs.

We need to pick one. A major oil spill in the Great Lakes would be the one thing our environment and economy might never overcome.

So the bottom line is that this is one place we can’t afford to play politics. It’s really as simple as that.

In full disclosure, Enbridge Energy is a financial supporter of Michigan Radio.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

CORRECTION: An earlier caption on the photo with this essay incorrectly identified the materials that travel through Line 5.