The Great Lakes ecosystem is a vital network of freshwater bodies for those in and outside of the Midwest, which supports 21% of the world’s freshwater supply and home to over 3,500 unique flora and fauna. Bordered by both Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, Wisconsin relies heavily on the Great Lakes as a source of tourism, recreation, and freshwater supply. The Great Lakes play an important role in the state’s economy, while also contributing to its scenic beauty and natural landscape.
But over the past 67 years, this unique ecosystem has been directly threatened by the presence of a potentially destructive oil pipeline, where any spillage would contaminate the water supply for both humans and wildlife. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is currently reviewing a proposed relocation project that would extend the existing pipeline by 41 miles. However, this debate extends far beyond a proposed relocation as environmental activists, tribal leaders, and community stakeholders fight to have the pipeline decommissioned entirely.
A Bit of Background on the Line 5 Pipeline
The pipeline, known colloquially as Line 5, is run by the Canadian energy company Enbridge; starting in Superior, Wisconsin, the pipeline runs 645 miles to its endpoint in Sarnia, Ontario. Line 5 was constructed in 1953, originally for a 50 year term, and is long overdue for a replacement. The 30-inch diameter pipeline transports propane across northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s upper peninsula, cutting directly through the ecologically sensitive Strait of Mackinac, where it divides into two 20-inch pipes submerged underwater for 4.5 miles. Enbridge cites that Line 5 supplies 55% of Michigan’s statewide propane needs; however, a 2018 report by London Economics International found that natural gas could easily be supplied using trucking transport for a very minor price increase. Moreover, while Wisconsin attributes 34% of it’s statewide electricity generation to natural gas, the natural gas from Line 5 is only transported through the state and not actively used by any utility companies in Wisconsin.
Line 5 has been a source of debate among Wisconsinites and Enbridge since its initial installment, and as pollution, conservation, and climate change continue to be addressed in Wisconsin, the real fight is just beginning.
Pipeline Poses Potential Environmental Hazards
In 2017, the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians declined to renew the right of way, an easement that allows a governmental body to travel or pass through publicly or privately owned land, permitting the pipeline to pass through the protected reservation land. Seeing limited action from Enbridge on removing and discontinuing the use of the pipeline, the Bad River Band filed a federal lawsuit on July 23, 2019 demanding pipeline construction to cease.
The Bad River Reservation, located in Northern Wisconsin, cites concerns over water quality degradation that would result from an inevitable spill. The reservation is nestled directly south of Lake Superior, and watersheds drain directly into the Great Lakes, making any potential spill not only dangerous to the health and economics of the Bad River Band, but to the entire fragile ecosystem.
A pipeline spill can adversely affect wildlife and release harmful persistent pollutants into the watershed and contribute to long-term contamination of the Great Lakes. Since the pipeline’s installment there have been 29 reported failures, spilling over 1 million gallons of oil across Wisconsin and Michigan. Constantly changing water conditions and the ever-accelerating issue of erosion are exposing the once buried pipeline, presenting a growing threat to the health of the Bad River and Lake Superior as well as the other Great Lakes.
The threat of climate change has also weighed into the decision. As the pipeline products are actively contributing to global warming and increasing carbon emissions, which in turn only accelerates severe weather patterns, decommissioning the pipeline would contribute to climate change mitigation in Wisconsin.
Enbridge has responded to the Bad River Band’s Lawsuit by proposing a relocation project that will go around the southern end of the reservation territory, extending the pipeline by 41 miles — which does little to mitigate any potential impacts.
Rerouting Line 5
While the current pipeline threatens communities and water quality, the proposed reroute does little to mitigate this concern. The reroute plan would surround the reservation land and the spillage would still run downstream into reservation watersheds, subsequently making its way into the Great Lakes.
The proposed reroute construction permit and authorization would require approval from a host of federal and state agencies as the construction will disrupt ecological habitats, protected wetlands, and cultural preservation sites. It would also endanger 109 acres of wetlands, which are home to a diverse array of native Wisconsin species. Enbridge has purchased a segment of land just north of Copper Falls State Park, a scenic and protected public access park in Mellen, WI, to establish a path for the rerouted pipeline. Copper Falls contains a segment of the Bad River and one of its associated tributaries, making it a vulnerable spot for potential water quality contamination.
Enbridge has applied for a permit through the Wisconsin Public Service Commission (PSC) to use eminent domain to take land or easements from un-willing landowners, who own property along their proposed reroute pathway.
The Debate on Decommissioning
While the reroute satisfies the stipulations provided by the lawsuit, activists in Wisconsin and Michigan are more interested in decommissioning the pipeline altogether. Environmental activist groups, such as 350 Madison, have been working to ensure the pipeline is permanently closed.
Phyllis Hasbrouck with 350 Madison spoke to Climate XChange to discuss her work on decommissioning the pipeline, stating, “we have focused on urging the PSC not to grant the permit for use of eminent domain.”
The PSC is the agency responsible for deciding whether or not the pipeline is in the public interest and has the power to grant Enbridge eminent domain privileges. Hasbrouck discussed how there is “no guidance to clarify what the language ‘in the public interest’ means” and how it applies to environmental regulation.
350 Madison, together with The John Muir Chapter of the Sierra Club, Honor the Earth, Superior Rivers Watershed Association, and the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, have applied to the PSC to be intervenors in the case, as have the Bad River Band, a group of 32 landowners, Clean Wisconsin, and two individual landowners. They hope to present evidence to the PSC to explain why the pipeline is not in the public interest.
There is currently no evidence to support the idea that Wisconsin residents or the overall state economy benefits from pipeline use. The pipeline poses a threat to the economy of Wisconsin as a potential spill could cause lasting, and expensive, environmental damage. While there is fear that those with union based jobs pertaining to the pipeline may be in peril, the renewable energy economy in Wisconsin is booming and shows no signs of slowing down; it is an industry with strong projections for similar union based jobs and increased job market stability as major industries move away from fossil fuels.
The Wisconsin DNR held a virtual hearing on July 1st, taking public comment from community members and stakeholders regarding the proposed relocation plan. The hearing accommodated over 500 attendees via Zoom with participants very curious about the DNR’s stance on proposed pipeline actions. Public comment was overwhelmingly against the pipeline relocation as community members called for decommissioning and removal of the hazardous pipeline. Micheal Friend, a law student at UW-Madison, stated during his public comment, “the DNR has an opportunity here to take a step in the right direction, away from fossil fuels and I hope for all our sakes [they] take it,” as he addressed his support for decommissioning Line.
The DNR has initiated the process of developing a comprehensive environmental impact statement to assess any potential impacts the rerouting project might have on groundwater, surface water and wildlife. Simultaneously, the PSC has allowed Enbridge until the end of July to voluntarily acquire the land needed for their extension project before state level intervention will take place.
Following the success of Native American activists in shutting down the Dakota Access Pipeline and the cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, Wisconsin environmentalists hope to achieve similar results, and fully remove the presence of the Line 5 pipeline from within state lines.