Michigan governor orders shutdown of Enbridge crude pipeline under straits

Nov. 23, 2020

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan has told Enbridge Inc. she is ordering the company to shut down its Line 5 crude oil pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac permanently.

She gave the company notice Nov. 13 of the decision to revoke the company’s 1953 easement for the crossing of the straits and said the company has 180 days to comply, which would mean a shutdown by May 12 at the latest.

Whitmer went to court at the same time. She filed a complaint in a state circuit court seeking an injunction and declaratory order backing up her decision to revoke the easement. The notice to Enbridge and the court filing both detail the governor’s two bases for ordering the easement canceled.

First, the state government in 1953 did not issue a formal finding that the easement was in the public interest. That procedural oversight was a failure of the state to comply with the “public trust doctrine,” according to Whitmer.

Second, Enbridge has violated terms of the easement for years by failing to take due care, according to the governor.

Line 5 is mostly a single pipeline but uses dual lines for the 4.5-mile crossing at the bottom of the straits. The dual lines are supported by spaced-out structures on the bed of the straits, but the company has allowed too much length of pipeline between support structures, the complaint says.

In addition, the company has allowed the accumulation of mussels to encrust the pipelines so thickly that it is impossible to conduct detailed analyses of the integrity of the multilayer coatings of the pipes.

Enbridge defends operations

Whitmer campaigned for the governorship in 2017 and 2018 partly on a promise to revoke the Line 5 easement. In 2019 she directed the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to study Enbridge compliance with the easement, an analysis that now serves as an underpinning for her action.

The chances of the governor’s order being upheld are an open question. Enbridge responded Nov. 13 with a statement saying “there is no credible basis for terminating the 1953 easement” and indicating it will defend its operations in court.

Enbridge said the DNR rejected its offer to provide technical experts for discussions or clarifications for the analysis.

With the notice and court filing, “Enbridge finally will have an opportunity to review the DNR’s analysis and provide a thorough response through the legal process,” the company said.

Line 5 extended reach

Line 5 normally carries about 540,000 b/d of crude oil and propane. It serves 10 refineries to varying degrees, in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Ontario, and Quebec, according to the operator. It is notably important as the source of propane for residents of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

The line traverses most of the length of the state before crossing under the St. Clair River to Sarnia, Ontario.

A newly installed crossing under the St. Clair River went into service July 31. It was developed with horizontal drilling. Enbridge has proposed a bigger new crossing for the Straits of Mackinac, where the company wants to build a tunnel beneath the straits.