Nessel: I ran on shutting down Line 5 and I’ll do it without a deal by June

By: and - May 29, 2019 4:19 pm

Environmentalists protest Line 5 at Mackinac. They were turned away at the Grand Hotel, May 29, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

Updated 5/29/2019, 7:05 p.m.

Attorney General Dana Nessel told the Michigan Advance on Wednesday that safety concerns about the oil pipeline running under the Straits of Mackinac was the reason why she ran for the office last year.

And if Gov. Gretchen Whitmer cannot soon reach a satisfactory agreement with Canadian oil company Enbridge, Nessel vowed that she will begin legal proceedings to shut down the company’s Line 5 — something for which many environmentalists have been clamoring.

Attorney General Dana Nessel at the Mackinac Policy Conference, May 29, 2019 | Andrew Roth

The Democratic attorney general said that unless that deal leads to the end of the oil pipeline, she will use her position to start the legal process of shutting the pipeline down “sometime in the month of June.”*

She added, “I won’t be satisfied until I see something that I know can be enforced in a court of law, that absolutely, 100 percent, will create a situation where Line 5 has to be decommissioned.”

Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said that the governor supports the attorney general’s plan.

“As you know, 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,” Brown wrote in an email. “Discussions with Enbridge and stakeholders are ongoing, and those discussions will help advise the governor on the next steps moving forward.”

The last few weeks have seen ongoing negotiations during which Whitmer would not rule out a controversial Enbridge plan to build an underground utility tunnel that would enclose a new oil pipeline 100 feet beneath the Great Lakes.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at the Mackinac Policy Conference, May 29, 2019 | Andrew Roth

Now the AG is now giving the company a firm deadline: If Whitmer and Enbridge don’t reach a deal the governor likes, Nessel will shut the whole thing down by June. And Whitmer won’t stop her, as Crain’s Detroit first reported.

Mackinac Bridge | Susan J. Demas

The 66-year-old tar sands oil pipeline carries some 23 million gallons of oil through the Straits of Mackinac each day and has been a major rallying cry for Michigan environmentalists who say it poses a substantial risk to the Great Lakes and should be decommissioned.

Nessel told the Advance in an interview on Mackinac Island that decommissioning Line 5 was one of the primary issues that motivated her to run for office in the first place.

Nessel recounted meeting with anti-Line 5 activists in 2017 in what would become a pivotal moment leading to her decision to run for attorney general.

“I honestly ran for this very issue. This was the most impactful issue for me,” she said. “I remember walking out of that meeting absolutely horrified and returning to my wife and saying, ‘I think I’m going to run for attorney general. Because if there’s no one out there that is willing to utilize the position of attorney general the way that I know it can be, which is to, you know, work independently, utilizing that office to decommission [Line 5], then I think I’d have to do it.’”

Sign at a Mackinac Island shop | Susan J. Demas

She said she believes a rupture could cause “the biggest oil spill in American history,” and that the past six months in office have only confirmed for her the necessity of shutting it down.

“The devastation to our jobs in recreation and tourism, to our supply of fresh drinking water, to the economy … will be such that I think, in my lifetime, Michigan will never recover,” Nessel continued. “And I’m not willing to take that risk. And I don’t think the voters who elected me want me to take that risk.”

Whitmer wins Michigan Chamber kudos for Line 5 talks

But after vowing to shut down Line 5 during her campaign, Whitmer has in the past several weeks not ruled out Enbridge’s tunnel pipeline project — much to the chagrin of environmentalists. The openness has won her the praise of a powerful business lobby, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

Whitmer’s office has since offered no further indication of where those ongoing negotiations may lead.

2019 Mackinac Policy Conference | Susan J. Demas

Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy wrote in an email to the Advance that discussions with Whitmer’s office are still taking place, and that the company is working to find “a path forward for the tunnel project,” estimated to cost Enbridge at least $500 million.

At least one prominent author and environmental activist, Bill McKibben, has suggested that if Whitmer allows the tunnel project to proceed, the “anachronistic” new pipeline could become a national rallying cry for environmentalists in an era of rising global temperatures, the Advance previously reported.

Environmental activists with the anti-Line 5 coalition Oil & Water Don’t Mix engaged in a demonstration on Mackinac Island to again voice their opposition to the oil pipeline Wednesday afternoon at the conclusion of Whitmer’s Mackinac Policy Conference comments. They marched from downtown to the Grand Hotel, but were turned away by hotel staff.

A 2018 Lame Duck law signed by GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder sought to secure the tunnel project deal. After taking office, Whitmer asked Nessel to issue a legal opinion.

The attorney general argued that the law was unconstitutional at Whitmer’s request, and the governor afterward signed an executive directive barring state agencies from issuing further permits that Enbridge may need for the plan.

Dana Nessel, March 22, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

“It was an effort to tie my hands, tie the hands of then-Gov. Elect Whitmer, but I think that is no longer a problem even if Enbridge wants to challenge it or any other entities want to challenge it,” Nessel told the Advance. “And at this point I think that it’s up to me and it’s up to the governor to make a decision and an assessment as to what happens in regard to line 5.

“Enbridge is always going to want to make money. And, again, this is a Canadian oil company that is trying to dictate to all the people who live in our state what we can and can’t do with the Great Lakes,” she continued.

“And I don’t believe they have that right. I don’t believe they retain the authority to be the ultimate arbiter of whether or not we get to retain the sanctity of the Great Lakes.”

This story was updated to clarify Attorney General Dana Nessel’s proposed action with regard to Line 5.

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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.

Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 22-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.