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Governor Gretchen Whitmer is at a Crossroads

The handling of the Enbridge Line 5 crude oil pipeline threatening the Great Lakes is placing Michigan’s ambitious Governor Gretchen Whitmer at a crossroads: Will her political future and environmental legacy be tarnished by an oily albatross around Michigan’s neck?

Governor Gretchen WhitmerMichigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (Photo: Gints Ivuskans)

Back in 2021, when Canada took on Michigan to keep Enbridge’s Line 5 oil pipeline from being shut down, Gov. Whitmer had this to say:

“I am profoundly disappointed that today the Government of Canada chose to invoke Article IX of the 1977 Transit Pipelines Treaty in a bid to help Enbridge, a private oil company, keep crude oil running indefinitely through Michigan's Straits of Mackinac. So long as oil is flowing through the pipelines, there is a very real threat of a catastrophic oil spill in the Great Lakes…rather than taking steps to diversify energy supply and ensure resilience, Canada has channeled its efforts into defending an oil company with an abysmal environmental track record."

Whitmer went on to complain that, quote, “the Government of Canada has chosen to do the bidding of the very oil company responsible for the 2010 Kalamazoo River Oil Spill–one of the largest inland oil spills in the history of the nation that happened right here in Michigan.”

Fast forward three years, and now Gov. Whitmer’s administration is joining Canada in doing Enbridge’s bidding.

As the popular governor prepares to deliver her sixth State of the State address, her appointees to the Michigan Public Service Commission have approved new Line 5 fossil fuel infrastructure in the Great Lakes –the Great Lakes oil tunnel–that will contribute 87 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually. It’s those gases that are causing extreme weather events like the massive 2023 Canadian wildfires that poisoned Michigan’s air and water. Meanwhile, Whitmer’s appointees at the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority are doing their part to advance the oil tunnel climate bomb, playing the role of an Enbridge amen chorus and spending millions of Michigan citizens’ tax dollars on consultants to support this supposedly unsubsidized Canadian pipeline.

Whitmer’s otherwise stellar clean energy record suggests she might still be open to taking more action in support of decommissioning Line 5, a move that would also assist in sinking Enbridge’s mammoth pipeline replacement plan for the Straits of Mackinac. She could, for example, weigh in strongly with President Biden and ask him to revoke the presidential permit for Line 5. The question is, why hasn’t she done so yet? Or if she has, why doesn’t she say so? It would seem consistent with her stance in 2020 when she moved to terminate the state’s easement that grants Enbridge permission to use the Straits lakebed. That effort failed when Enbridge used the federal courts to halt the state’s action, which eventually led to Whitmer backing off.

Whitmer could, for example, weigh in strongly with President Biden and ask him to revoke the presidential permit for Line 5. The question is, why hasn’t she done so yet? Or if she has, why doesn’t she say so?

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel continues pursuing her lawsuit against Enbridge, which will get an important hearing in March before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. But, again, the governor has been strangely silent on Nessel’s effort given that, if successful, it would put the future of Line 5 in the Straits back where it belongs–in the hands of a state court. That’s precisely what Gov. Whitmer said she wanted in 2021 when Enbridge had her lawsuit removed to federal court.

For both President Biden and Gov. Whitmer (perhaps a future presidential contender), there may be a big political price for doing nothing about Line 5 and its threat to the Great Lakes and our climate. Biden’s poll numbers among younger voters are cratering, in no small part because his administration is seen as supporting more fossil fuel infrastructure at a time when greenhouse gases are ravaging the planet. Enbridge’s oil tunnel would be a Michigan climate bomb into the next century, and this legacy could undermine Whitmer with younger and most loyal Democratic voters in a future competitive presidential primary election.

Moreover, the proposal must still survive a two-year federal permitting process, get financing, and endure many years of construction in the heart of the Great Lakes. Even if the oil tunnel is approved and completed years down the road, the Line 5 pipeline remains a near- and long-term threat both in the Straits and along U.S. 2, where the Coast Guard worries a rupture could spill millions of gallons of oil into Lake Michigan. Enbridge, Canada, and Gov. Whitmer’s appointees to the MPSC may say the oil tunnel is a solution to the Line 5 problem, but scientists, independent engineers, and common sense say otherwise.

What Gov. Whitmer could and should be doing right now is pushing President Biden to insist he sides with Michigan, the Great Lakes, climate protection, and a clean energy future instead of backing Canada and Enbridge and an outdated and dangerous pipeline.

Two Steps Whitmer Can Take

There are two important ways Whitmer and Biden can partner to end the Line 5 threat:

  • The first is to remove Line 5’s presidential permit. A presidential permit is required for oil pipelines that cross international borders into the United States. Canada is asserting treaty rights on behalf of Enbridge’s interest, but Canada is playing a weak legal hand that can be easily overcome.
  • In addition, the Biden administration may soon show its hand on Line 5 in the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where the Justice Department has filed a notice of appearance. Bad River Band and Enbridge are scheduled for oral arguments in that case next month, which will decide whether and when a lower court-ordered Line 5 removal from Bad River reservation land in Wisconsin happens. The Tribe has been in court since 2021 attempting to evict Enbridge from a remote area of its reservation, which is part of the Lake Superior watershed where Line 5 faces an imminent threat of rupture because of flooding and soil erosion.

Gov. Whitmer’s silence on Line 5 since 2021 has consequences for the Great Lakes and our climate. Her record in support of clean energy suggests she understands where the future lies, and it’s not with big new fossil fuel projects in Michigan or an existing, dangerous, old oil pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac. The choices she makes could break the chains imposed by Line 5 going forward and determine the state of our state beyond Wednesday and into the next century. And they could also help her unshackle her political future from a backward-looking fossil fuel project when she leaves office in 2026.

–The Oil & Water Don’t Mix Team



Let us know in the comments below.


Showing 19 reactions

  • Peter Potoski
    followed this page 2024-02-03 07:22:03 -0500
  • Jane Sonnenday
    followed this page 2024-01-25 14:24:00 -0500
  • Margaret McGrady
    followed this page 2024-01-25 13:51:04 -0500
  • Ralph Tuscher
    commented 2024-01-24 16:05:52 -0500
    It’s insane to route an oil pipeline from Canada, then across the Straits to Michigan, then back to Canada, while threatening the Great Lakes by a Canadian company with a horrific oil spill record!
  • Thomas Hy
    followed this page 2024-01-24 13:03:21 -0500
  • Lynn Frank
    followed this page 2024-01-24 11:51:01 -0500
  • Denise Sica
    commented 2024-01-24 11:16:01 -0500
    Many voters supported Governor Whitmer for her strong stance on working to Shut Down Line 5. By continuing to force this issue, she can leave a legacy of protecting our precious Great Lakes, or risk the inevitable tragedy of a Line 5 failure which would be devastating to the environment and to the economy of northern Michigan as well. Let’s send a message to Governor Whitmer today! SHUT DOWN LINE 5!!
  • Donna Goodlaxson
    followed this page 2024-01-24 11:05:33 -0500
  • Denise Sica
    followed this page 2024-01-24 10:42:03 -0500
  • Patricia Marciniak
    followed this page 2024-01-24 10:20:23 -0500
  • nichole keway biber
    commented 2024-01-24 09:41:21 -0500
    A planned and orderly decommissioning of this ancient and already damaged pipeline would not only be a rational response to the constant threat of despoiling the waters, but would also serve as a valuable case study of what a real-life and just transition away from fossil fuels actually looks like. We are far past the time of just saying there needs to be a massive recalibration regarding carbon emissions and all their attendant poisons. The heart of the Great Lakes (and therefore the entire continent we Anishinaabek know as Turtle Island) is the perfect place to begin this real work in earnest. That means no less than completely transitioning away from an extractive economy to a creative one, where we envision and do the (on the ground, local union) labor necessary to achieve the long-term security of recovering a functional ecosystem. Imagine all the good we could accomplish together and for each other and for coming generations, if the measure of success was to safeguard our waters and steward biodiversity. That would be Michigan pride! A far better image than more of the same exploitative trajectory, where success is a matter of what most enriches corporations like Enbridge, which like every other oil behemoth spends millions on propaganda and lobbying politicians. They do this at the expense of our health and our communities and our collective future – at the expense of the water, the literal basis of life on Earth. You can’t drink oil.
  • Joan Abbott
    followed this page 2024-01-24 09:04:24 -0500
  • Jesse LoVasco
    followed this page 2024-01-24 08:35:43 -0500
  • Lori Thompson
    followed this page 2024-01-24 08:32:41 -0500
  • Dave Mayberry
    followed this page 2024-01-24 08:28:12 -0500
  • Linda Dunigan
    followed this page 2024-01-24 08:20:16 -0500
  • Joseph Hanley
    followed this page 2024-01-24 07:58:51 -0500
  • Robert Kennedy
    followed this page 2024-01-24 07:56:39 -0500
  • Barbara Stamiris
    commented 2024-01-24 07:45:37 -0500
    Michigan’s climate action plan leads the nation, so don’t forget Line 5 in your speech TONIGHT. Protect the Great Lakes from the #1 threat: OIL!
    If 100 of us sent that to [email protected] TODAY, it just might help. Or call 517-335-7858.

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Join those working to protect the Great Lakes & climate from the Enbridge Line 5 crude oil pipeline.

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