Enviros say GOP, oil industry are using high gas prices to fearmonger about pipeline shutdowns

By: - March 24, 2022 4:09 am

Perry Beeman/States Newsroom

Gas prices have soared in recent weeks amid inflation and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with some Democrats raising concerns about price gouging.

Although they’re starting to drop, many Republicans and oil companies are still using gas prices to criticize Democrats President Joe Biden and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for efforts to shut down oil pipeline projects.

This is not the first time GOP lawmakers have focused on gas prices to make the case against the decommissioning of Line 5 and other pipelines. But when gas prices reached a record average high of $4.33 per gallon on March 11, the highest since 2008, that argument has ramped up.

On his first day in office, Biden revoked the Keystone XL pipeline extension permit, which would have transported tar sands oil across three states — Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. In Michigan, Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel have been working to stop the Canadian-owned Line 5 pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac.

Right-wing media has been a key place for pro-pipeline arguments. In the fall, as Line 5 lawsuits between Enbridge and the state of Michigan played out, GOP lawmakers, conservative figures and media ramped up the pro-pipeline rhetoric and put a highly politicized lens on the debate, as the Advance previously reported.

Those include a tweet from GOP gubernatorial candidate Ryan Kelley, claiming that “Biden and his progressive leftist agenda [are] taking aim at Line 5” (despite Biden still not taking a public stance on the pipeline); and remarks from groups and lawmakers in office slamming both Biden and Whitmer over Line 5.

A sign in Mackinaw City supporting Enbridge’s Line 5 tunnel | Susan J. Demas

That rhetoric has reemerged as gas prices took off.

“Whitmer wants higher gas prices,” is the title of a Wall Street Journal editorial last week. Arguing that a Line 5 shutdown would raise costs at the pump for Midwesterners, the editorial heavily cites a new study from Consumers Energy Alliance (CEA) that claims Midwesterners will spend “at least $23.7 billion more on gasoline and diesel” in the five years following a shutdown.

The nonprofit Consumers Energy Alliance is a front group for the energy industry that pushes pro-oil and gas messaging in the United States, according to SourceWatch.

Enbridge spokesperson Ryan Duffy, referring to the CEA report, said it is “clear that a shut-down of Line 5 would only add to the current disruption of the energy market, and would hurt small businesses and the hard-working families in Michigan and throughout the region, at a time when they can least afford it.”

But environmentalists say the attempt to connect currently high gas prices with these pipeline shutdowns is nothing more than empty rhetoric.

“What’s been alarming to me is how that report is being picked up as fact,” said Beth Wallace, National Wildlife Federation (NWF) Great Lakes campaign manager, “whereas several other reports that use sourcing and facts and regional dynamics are being brushed off.”

In May 2021, just prior to Whitmer’s deadline for Enbridge to shut down Line 5 (which the company ignored and is still fighting in court), the same group released a report arguing that a Line 5 shutdown would devastate energy supplies of surrounding states to the tune of $20.8 billion in losses and 33,000 job losses in four states.

Environmental groups including the NWF had also slammed that report as “propaganda.”

Wallace said it is “inappropriate” and borders on “profiteering” that oil corporations are pushing these narratives. She pointed to three reports from Dynamic Risk, Martin Waymire and London Economics International that found a shutdown would result in a much smaller impact on gas prices.

The Dynamic Risk study, commissioned by GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder, who signed legislation for a new tunnel project, 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.

The Martin Waymire study from Environmental Defense Canada came to similar conclusions, as did two studies commissioned for the NWF by the Boston-based London Economics International. Josh Hovey, partner at Martin Waymire, told the Advance the report shows “gas price increases would be negligible if Line 5 were to be shut down.”

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

Wallace says Enbridge has used both Dynamic Risk and London Economics International on a consulting basis themselves. When asked by the Advance, Duffy declined to confirm or comment further on this.

“Their findings, which are all based off of Enbridge’s own claims, are not being considered in the way that industry front groups’ findings are being considered,” Wallace said.

A study by a former Dow chemical engineer in summer 2020 also found that, despite Enbridge’s predictions otherwise, the temporary court-ordered shutdown of one of Line 5’s dual pipelines did not affect gas prices or supply in Michigan or Canada.

“In 2020, when the damaged Line 5 pipeline was shut down by court order, there was no impact on Michigan or regional gas prices,” said Sean McBrearty, campaign coordinator for the anti-Line 5 coalition Oil & Water Don’t Mix. “Many studies have shown that there will be virtually no impact on gas supply or prices when Line 5 is permanently shut down.

“The fact that Enbridge and their counterparts in the fossil fuel industry have used the Russian war on Ukraine to fear-monger about more gas price hikes while major oil companies rake in record profits is not surprising, but it is obscene,” McBrearty added.

Republicans and a few Democrats in the Michigan Legislature have been adamantly opposed to the Democratic administration’s efforts to shut down the current Line 5 pipeline, which has been a source of controversy since another Enbridge-owned pipeline catastrophically spilled in a Kalamazoo River tributary in 2010.

Line 5 runs for miles under the environmentally sensitive Straits that also hold culturally significant meaning to the surrounding tribes.

As for the Keystone XL pipeline, which Biden rescinded the permit for on his first day in office, McBrearty said that pipeline would not have affected current gas prices as it would not have been completed yet.

By the time Biden rescinded the permit, only 8% of the project had been built. By the company’s own estimations, even if the pipeline construction had been allowed to continue, it would not be completed and operational until 2023 — meaning it would not have alleviated currently high gas prices.

Still, Republicans including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and others have argued that, had Biden not nixed the Keystone XL pipeline, high gas prices could have been alleviated.

Climate activist groups protest in front of the U.S. Supreme Court as oral arguments are heard in U.S. Forest Service and Atlantic Coast Pipeline, LLC v. Cowpasture River Assn. case, on February 24, 2020 in Washington, DC. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In Michigan, arguments made by Republican lawmakers in favor of Line 5 largely mirror Enbridge’s own. 

This month, the state Senate adopted Senate Resolution 114, a non-binding measure calling for policies that will lead to “energy independence” in Michigan and across the country — including the continued operation of Line 5. The Republican-sponsored resolution also criticized Biden for his shutdown of the Keystone XL extension.

“President Biden, United States Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm, Governor Whitmer, Michigan Attorney General Nessel, and other elected officials have pursued policies that have harmed our ability to achieve energy independence, including the President’s decision to halt the Keystone XL pipeline and the Governor’s and Michigan Attorney General’s attempts to shut down the Line 5 pipeline,” the measure sponsored by state Sen. Dale Zorn (R-Ida) reads.

“… We urge Governor Whitmer and Michigan Attorney General Nessel to immediately cease their efforts to shut down the Line 5 pipeline and instead work proactively to lower energy costs for the residents of this state.”

Wallace said that true energy independence would include moving away from fossil fuels and transitioning to clean energy renewables, not “lifting up and protecting the interests of fossil fuel corporations.”

“I think [the lawmakers pushing this narrative are] completely misguided or are being persuaded by special interests within our state that are pumping a ton of resources into elected officials at this moment, Enbridge being one of them,” Wallace said.

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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. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).

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