Whitmer wins Michigan Chamber kudos for Line 5 talks

By: - May 8, 2019 8:58 am
Michigan's Chamber of Commerce

Michigan Chamber of Commerce | Susan J. Demas

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce is praising Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s decision to negotiate with Canadian energy company Enbridge on a plan for a new Great Lakes oil pipeline.

“If you’re genuinely concerned about taking action to protect the Great Lakes and get the pipeline out of the water, the governor has the best approach and is more likely to be successful,” said Michigan Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Rich Studley.

Enbridge is a member of the powerful business lobby.

But Studley said recent comments from Attorney General Dana Nessel on any oil pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac indicate she may be considering a legal battle with the company.

“I respect the Governor’s effort to find a swift and straightforward resolution to this issue, but if unsuccessful, I will use every resource available to our office to shut down Line 5 to protect our Great Lakes,” Nessel said in a statement last week.

Studley said that undermines the governor’s ongoing talks with Enbridge officials on the company’s plan to replace Line 5 with a new oil pipeline that would be buried in a tunnel beneath the Great Lakes.

“Her most recent comments suggest that if the AG had her way, she would plunge the state, at taxpayer expense, into years and years and years of very expensive, uncertain litigation that frankly the experts in this area that we speak to believe that [sic] state government would probably lose,” Studley said in a phone interview with the Advance.

“It would be a terrible waste of taxpayer dollars and time to go through nine, 10, 11 years of state courts and then probably federal courts … and end up with Line 5 still in operation and resting on the lake bottom instead of being buried 100 feet or more below ground in a state-of-the-art tunnel that would protect the Great Lakes,” Studley said.

‘Oil out of the water’

As candidates last year, Nessel and Whitmer — both Democrats — promised to shut down Line 5.

After the November election, then-Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, signed a law that created a new legal entity which, in effect, preserved the pipeline for years to come, environmental critics say. It was also seen as a way to legally tie Whitmer’s hands in a state deal that allows Enbridge to build a new buried pipeline that would one day replace Line 5.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at the Fiscal Year 2020 budget presentation | Casey Hull

During her campaign, Whitmer vowed to issue an injunction on her first day in office that could halt Enbridge’s existing state agreement allowing Line 5 to remain in the Great Lakes. She said she would “begin the legal process for shutting down Line 5 to protect the Great Lakes, protect our drinking water and protect Michigan jobs.”

After taking office, Whitmer instead asked Nessel for an official opinion on the legality of a separate Lame Duck law allowing the new tunnel project to move forward. The attorney general said in March it was unconstitutional. Whitmer then issued an executive directive barring state departments from taking action on Enbridge’s new pipeline plan.

In recent weeks, the governor has avoided directly answering whether she will follow through on halting the flow of oil through the company’s existing 66-year-old pipeline. Amid ongoing discussions, she has also not ruled out supporting plans for a new pipeline encased in a tunnel 100 feet beneath the Great Lakes.

She has said, however, a projected seven-to-10-year timeline for the project is not fast enough.

Dana Nessel | Andrew Roth photo

In a statement to the Advance, Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said, “The Governor is committed to a solution that protects the Great Lakes, removes the pipelines from the Straits as soon as possible, and provides for the Upper Peninsula’s energy needs.

“Discussions with Enbridge and stakeholders are ongoing, and those discussions will help advise the Governor on the next steps moving forward,” she continued.

Nessel, however, has continued to draw a clear dividing line with the Canadian company.

AG spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney said, in no uncertain terms, that the attorney general will oppose any plan that does not result in a pipeline-free Great Lakes.

“The AG defines success … when Line 5 is decommissioned and oil stops flowing in the Great Lakes,” Rossman-McKinney wrote in an email to the Advance.

Enviro groups

To the dismay of the Sierra Club and the applause of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and Republicans, Whitmer has not ruled out Enbridge’s tunnel plan as one potential way of fulfilling that goal, as the Advance previously reported.

State Rep. Triston Cole (R-Mancelona) called the change in Whitmer’s tone an “about-face,” praising and criticizing the governor at the same time.

Triston Cole
Triston Cole

Environmentalists are meanwhile concerned Whitmer could end up arguing that the tunnel project would fulfill her campaign pledge to shut down Line 5.

As of now, environmentalists and business interests agree on one thing: Nessel is signaling that she may already believe Enbridge has or would run afoul of the law if it went through with the roughly 10-year, $350 to $500 million self-financed tunnel project.

In the past, environmentalists have argued that Enbridge’s Line 5 violates a 1953 agreement with the state — a concern Whitmer alluded to on her campaign website. They say Nessel’s latest public comments indicate she is on their side.

That agreement, called a state “easement,” allows Enbridge to operate the pipeline in the Great Lakes. But environmentalists have argued that the company’s failure to previously disclose knowledge of gaps in protective coating along the pipeline and missing anchor supports violated the agreement.

Enbridge has since repaired all but one of the coating gaps along Line 5, according to company spokesman Ryan Duffy. The last one will be patched this year.

David Holtz

Environmental activist David Holtz says arguing that Enbridge violated the state easement is “not an unreasonable position for the state’s top law enforcement officer to take.” Holtz, the legislative and political director for the Sierra Club’s Michigan Chapter, which opposes Line 5, said it “establishes a bright line.”

He said that’s “helpful to the governor, because the governor is about to go into negotiation with a company that can’t be trusted … and she needs a strong attorney general that has her back.”

Oil and Water Don’t Mix is a coalition opposed to any oil pipeline in the Great Lakes. The group’s spokesman, Sean McBrearty, and Holtz both say they think Whitmer and Nessel are working together, despite the difference in their public comments.

The governor signed executive measures that morphed the former Department of Environmental Quality into the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) and pledged the state will meet greenhouse gas emission goals consistent with the 2016 Paris Climate Accords.

However, Holtz and McBrearty say their preferred course of action isn’t Whitmer negotiating with Enbridge.

“I think anything that the Whitmer administration might be considering that would allow a tunnel through the Great Lakes really undercuts what they’ve done so far on climate,” McBrearty said.

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Michael Gerstein
Michael Gerstein

Michael Gerstein is a former Advance reporter covering the Governor's office, criminal justice and the environment.