Enviros, tribal leaders face right-wing, pro-Line 5 ‘echo chamber’ 

By: - November 22, 2021 4:11 am

Art prints at “Enbridge eviction” celebration, McGulpin Point Lighthouse | Laina G. Stebbins

For years, Canadian pipeline company Enbridge has been pushing back against opponents of its controversial Line 5 oil pipeline by arguing that, should it be shut down, fuel prices would shoot up and propane supply would suffer.

However, a shutdown doesn’t appear to be imminent, as Enbridge is locked in an array of court battles to keep the state from acting to do so and scored a victory last week. But Republicans in Michigan and elsewhere have locked onto that messaging and have been frequently mirroring Enbridge’s warnings — regardless of the veracity of the claims.

Line 5 supporters have not only preemptively blamed Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for rising gas prices caused by a shutdown, but have also insinuated that President Joe Biden is involved in the effort, despite the Democrat’s lack of a public stance on Line 5.

“It’s all politics,” said David Holtz, spokesperson for the anti-Line 5 Oil & Water Don’t Mix coalition. “What’s coming out of the right-wing echo chamber nationally is ridiculous. They’re trying to simply use Line 5 as a cudgel against President Biden on energy prices, when the fact is, Line 5 has really nothing at all to do with energy prices.

“Gas prices go up and down. Right now, they’re up. Line 5 has little to do with prices at the pump,” Holtz said.

Tribal citizens have long complained about Enbridge’s messaging tactics, some of which attempt to portray an “understanding” between the company and tribes, which they characterize as misleading and manipulative.

All 12 federally recognized tribes in Michigan are publicly opposed to Line 5 and its tunnel-enclosed replacement project.

“It’s a media tactic by Enbridge to do that, to raise questions as much as possible, to fearmonger, which seems to be a great tool of the right,” said Holly T. Bird, a Traverse City-based Pueblo/Yaqui/Apache attorney and longtime Indigenous activist.

“It really elevates that whole concern by people that they’re going to experience much higher gas prices and experience scarcity when it comes to fuel. And really, the evidence is very much to the contrary,” Bird added.

Indigenous water protectors in the Straits of Mackinac | Holly T. Bird

Fuel prices 

One of Enbridge’s primary arguments has always been that Line 5 keeps energy costs down for northern Michigan, Wisconsin and Canadian residents.

“There are many people, both Republican and Democrat, that are concerned about energy prices going up if Line 5 is shut down because that is in fact what would happen. All the studies on this issue have all consistently found energy prices would increase,” said Enbridge spokesperson Ryan Duffy, pointing to a study from IHS Markit.

Enbridge also says, citing their own findings, a Line 5 shutdown would cause a propane shortage in Michigan of 756,000 gallons per day and would make gas prices rise.

The company got the go-ahead from the previous GOP Gov. Rick Snyder administration to build a tunnel-enclosed replacement for Line 5 that Enbridge says would help protect the energy supply. A study commissioned by Snyder found that a full Line 5 shutdown would lead to a 2.13 cent-increase at the gas pump for Michigan consumers and a 10 to 35 cent-increase, seasonally, for U.P. propane consumers.

However, a 2015 composite report from scientific advisors for the Traverse City-based environmental group For the Love of Water (FLOW) concludes that a Line 5 shutdown at the Straits would not disrupt propane in the U.P. or Wisconsin.

“No more than 5-10 percent of the [light to medium] crude oil in Line 5 is going to the Detroit and Toledo refineries. In reality, it is most likely closer to 5 percent than 10 percent,” the report reads, noting that the “overwhelming majority” of Line 5 oil goes back into Canada rather than Michigan and other states.

Gas prices go up and down. Right now, they're up. Line 5 has little to do with prices at the pump.

– Oil & Water Don't Mix spokesperson David Holtz

Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office also pushes back on Enbridge’s claims that a shutdown will send fuel prices soaring, citing two studies commissioned for the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) by London Economics International.

“Previous independent analyses have shown that shutting down Line 5 will have minimal impacts on propane and gasoline prices in Michigan,” spokesperson Lynsey Mukomel said. “The exaggerated claims to the contrary cannot be allowed to distract from the real, continuing danger posed by Line 5.”

Whitmer’s office did not return a request for comment.

Meanwhile, Enbridge’s own timeline to fortify Line 5 looks longer than expected. The company isn’t even set to start work on the tunnel until 2024 at the earliest — and the tunnel would likely be completed by 2028 or later, according to documents obtained by the NWF through a recent lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT).

Republicans claim shutdown is imminent

In recent weeks, right-wing media and GOP lawmakers have begun railing against a supposedly imminent Line 5 shutdown brought upon by Whitmer and Biden that will suffocate fuel supplies and gouge prices.

Those include a series of recent claims from the DeVos family-funded Michigan Freedom Fund and Michigan Rising Action, in addition to lawmakers like U.S. Reps. Lisa McClain (R-Romeo) and Tim Walberg (R-Tipton) and GOP gubernatorial candidate Ryan Kelley. None responded to requests for further comment.

Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI) listens at a hearing before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Energy | Michael A. McCoy/Getty Images

On Nov. 8, Walberg tweeted that a Line 5 shutdown “would hurt our economy and cause home heating costs to rise even higher right as we enter the winter months,” with a link to a letter he wrote to Biden urging him to keep the pipeline operating.

The next day, both McClain and Kelley tweeted about Line 5.

“Line 5 will guarantee that Michiganders will be able to heat their homes for less during a time that gas prices are skyrocketing,” McClain said.

Kelley went after Biden and Whitmer in a tweet that day, saying “Biden and his progressive leftist agenda [are] taking aim at Line 5.  

“As winter approaches, Biden wants Michiganders to suffer with skyrocketed heating prices or without heat at all. Whitmer just sits by smiling, not fighting for Michigan residents, like normal. #Progressives,” Kelley tweeted.

A recent Politico story reported that the White House is studying the effects a Line 5 shutdown would have on the region, igniting even more criticism from Republicans in Michigan, Ohio and elsewhere.

To the contrary, as clarified by an administration official in an email to the Advance, the White House is only reviewing the impacts of Enbridge’s proposed tunnel-enclosed Line 5 replacement and is not looking into shutting down the current pipeline.

“No study or anything currently being undertaken about shutting down the current line,” the official wrote on Nov. 9.

Whitmer herself shutting down Line 5 would also be anything but imminent — and currently, the odds appear to be on Enbridge’s side. A federal judge ruled Tuesday that Whitmer’s shutdown lawsuit will be heard in federal court, which experts say would make an eventual Enbridge victory in that case more likely.

It is so far unclear whether Nessel will attempt to appeal the decision; Mukomel said Tuesday that her office is “reviewing the decision and considering next steps.”

Even in the best case scenario for the state — an appeal is granted, the case remains in state court and 30th Circuit Court Judge James Jamo ultimately rules in Whitmer’s and Nessel’s favor — that entire legal process would likely take well into next year to conclude, if not longer.

Yet, the GOP messaging aligned with Enbridge’s continues to warn about a dire impending shutdown that will hurt Michiganders.

Indigenous water protectors at the Mackinac Bridge | Mohammed Cheri

“What’s happening in Michigan is that seemingly overnight, a battle over protecting the Great Lakes has turned into a nationalized war being waged by a foreign corporation and right-wing extremists to take down a governor and keep oil profits flowing,” Holtz said Thursday.

The coordinated calls to keep oil flowing through the pipeline, backed by a marketing campaign from a multi-million dollar company, presents a challenge for opponents of Line 5.

“It’s frustrating,” Bird said, emphasizing that she is even more frustrated with the people who “don’t see the hypocrisy” behind the messaging.

Those of us that are fighting to protect water, we’re not doing this for our own financial gain,” she said. “We’re doing this to protect the sanctity of our water and where we make our futures. For us Indigenous people, it’s for our seventh generation. And for my extended tribal family, it’s our subsistence, our fishing, our right to gather and maintain our cultural practices and ways of living.”

Bird said that, ultimately, the rhetoric on either side should not deflect from the “real problem,” which is “the risk to our water” and the environmental impacts of a potential oil spill in the Straits.


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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.