By Steven Maier
The chorus of voices calling for the decommissioning of a twin oil pipeline running across the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac has become more diverse.
A network of 18 businesses, all but one based in Michigan, recently announced support for halting the use of the controversial pipeline. The Great Lakes Business Network, formed in December 2016, is supported by the National Wildlife Federation and the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities in Traverse City, Michigan. The network is also collaborating with the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.
Line 5 is a pipeline operated by Enbridge Inc. that runs 645 miles from Wisconsin to Ontario and carries 540,000 barrels of oil per day. The 4.5 mile section that crosses under the Straits spanning Michigan’s Upper and Lower peninsulas is controversial. Built in 1953, the pipeline was designed to last 50 years. Critics say that a spill in the Straits of Mackinac has catastrophic consequences for Great Lakes ecosystems and the businesses that rely on them.
They pose a particular challenge for oil cleanup due to strong currents that sweep through them and reverse frequently.
Enbridge cites the importance of Line 5 in supplying propane to the Upper Peninsula. The pipeline supplies 65 percent of propane consumed in the U.P. and 55 percent statewide, according to the company.
“It’s important to keep in mind, especially at this time of year, especially in Michigan, there are a lot of people that rely on what Line 5 supplies,” said Enbridge regional communications supervisor Ryan Duffy.
The Groundwork Center has been fighting Line 5 since 2013, said Jim Lively, the group’s program director. In a controversy that has been pressed mainly by nonprofit organizations, the new business partnership adds a new dimension of pressure on state officials, he said.
Nonprofit groups pressured the state into creating a petroleum pipeline task force, which released a report in July 2015. That report prompted Gov. Rick Snyder to create a Pipeline Safety Advisory Board to implement the task force’s recommendations.
The board oversees two independent studies funded by Enbridge–one assesses risks posed by the pipeline, while the other explores alternatives. Those studies are expected to be released this summer.
The company is glad the state is conducting the studies and looks forward to the results, Duffy said. Enbridge regularly tests the pipes. It also provides information about Line 5, inspections and monitoring systems on its website.
The company is not assessing alternatives, Duffy said.
And neither is the new Great Lakes Business Network. Member businesses have varying opinions regarding alternatives, and the network as a whole has no official stance, Lively said.
The focus is on the immediate risk to the Great Lakes, said Dan Sloboda, an environmental coordinator for Patagonia, an outdoor clothing retailer based in Chicago.
“It’s the wrong pipeline, in the wrong place, at the wrong time,” Sloboda said.
Many member businesses have called for a shutdown for some time. Cherry Republic is a gourmet food store based in Glen Arbor and a member of the network.
The company is among those that supported the production of “Great Lakes, Bad Lines,” a short documentary released last August that advocates for decommissioning. The film was produced in partnership with FLOW, a nonprofit law and policy center in Traverse City that advocates for the Great Lakes.
Cherry Republic owner Bob Sutherland has been donating to nonprofit groups like FLOW for years. He’s a former member of the Groundwork Center and a current member of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.
“In this case, what’s best for the environment is also what’s best for business,” Sutherland said.
The network is calling for a strategic shutdown of the pipeline in order to avoid economic disruption. They want that process to begin as soon as possible, Sutherland said.
FLOW alleges deceit and number-fudging by Enbridge–claiming that the company has exaggerated the importance of Line 5’s supply of propane to the U.P. According to a study by the organization, Line 5 supplies only 35-50 percent of the U.P.’s propane.
That demand could be met each day with five tanker trucks or two rail cars, according to FLOW’s analysis. Such transport is usually considered more dangerous than pipelines, but the location of Line 5 makes for an exception, said FLOW executive director Liz Kirkwood.
The organization claims that 90 percent of the oil running through the Straits ends up in Canada and that Line 5 an unnecessary shortcut.
Enbridge disagrees. Thirty percent of the oil from the line goes to a Michigan refinery, Duffy said. Outside organizations don’t have access to company data on oil delivery, he said.
Sutherland, Kirkwood and Lively each cited Enbridge’s track record as a motivator for their opposition. In 2010, Enbridge’s Line 6B ruptured, spilling heavy tar sands oil and polluting nearly 40 miles of the Kalamazoo River. Enbridge has previously put the cost of the resulting cleanup at over $1 billion.
Editor’s note: this story was revised Feb. 28 to more accurately portray the network’s desire for the pipeline to be shut down strategically, not immediately.