Shut down Line 5 — it’s too risky

July 1, 2020 7:00 am
3D rendering of pipelines underwater | Getty Images

3D rendering of pipelines underwater | Getty Images

Enbridge’s Line 5 oil pipeline is too risky to keep operating and now the State of Wisconsin can permanently shut it down. (The Line 5 pipeline is currently, temporarily shut down thanks to the efforts of  Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel after the discovery of damage to the pipeline.) The 67-year old pipeline has already spilled over 1 million gallons of oil in 33 different incidents.  The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) will decide the fate of the pipeline by granting or denying  Enbridge a permit to build a new segment ]in northern Wisconsin.  

The Line 5 pipeline currently runs from Superior, Wisconsin, through northern Wisconsin and the reservation of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  From there, it runs under the Straits of Mackinac (where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron meet), into the Lower Peninsula, and on  into Canada.The Bad River Band discovered multiple areas of concern on the pipeline, including parts of the pipeline that are exposed and some parts that are even unsupported (increasing the risk of a spill).  In 2017, the Bad River Tribal Council passed a resolution not to renew the 50-year-old leases with Enbridge that had expired in 2013. They called on Enbridge to remove their pipeline from the Bad River watershed entirely. All of the rivers in the area flow north through the reservation and into Lake Superior, so moving the pipeline to a different part of the watershed will not reduce the risk to their drinking water wild rice, and the whole ecosystem. Instead of complying, Enbridge is fighting the tribe  in court and has proposed a new segment for the pipeline to create a  U-shaped route adjacent to the  Bad River reservation This pipeline risks the watershed, Lake Superior and our future. 

Line 5 has been under scrutiny in Michigan for years because of the risks posed to the Great Lakes by its presence on the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac.  Given Enbridge’s track record of a spill, on average, every 20 days, it is too risky to allow the pipeline to continue operating where the turbulent waters between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron would quickly spread the toxic oil throughout the lakes. The Great Lakes contain 20% of the world’s freshwater and Line 5 poses an immediate threat to three of these precious lakes. In Michigan, hundreds of organizations, tribal governments, and businesses have signed onto the call to shut down Line 5.

The Kakagon Sloughs are an additional precious, internationally renowned resource threatened by the pipeline. The Sloughs have been named one of Wisconsin’s 100 Wetland Gems and as a RAMSAR Site (a designation of a Wetland of International Importance). The RAMSAR website explains that “… as the only remaining extensive coastal wild rice bed in the Great Lakes region, it is critical to ensuring the genetic diversity of Lake Superior wild rice.” If the new segment of the pipeline were to rupture, the oil could flow into the sloughs, damaging them forever.  Even if the spill could be cleaned up, wild rice is such a sensitive plant, it might never return.

Enbridge also carelessly proposed the pipeline run upstream of another Wisconsin gem, Copper Falls State Park. The pipeline would cross the Bad River and the Tyler Forks River just upstream of the iconic Brownstone Falls. The powerful waterfalls would act as a chute during a spill, carrying the toxic oil downstream faster than any humans could muster a response.Copper Falls is one of Wisconsin’s most beautiful parks and attracts visitors from across the state and beyond. Given the importance of tourism to the area, a spill could cause permanent damage to the economy of Northern Wisconsin.

Finally, it is 2020.That means we have 10 years to stop the worst effects of climate change, according to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The Line 5 pipeline carries dirty tar sands oil that has been refined into ‘light’ crude oil. Tar sands oil is the dirtiest form of oil and is so carbon-intensive that former NASA scientist James Hansen stated that if we burned all the tar sands oil, it would be “game over for the climate.”  Last year Gov. Tony  Evers called for bold climate action as he committed the state to 100% carbon-free electricity and created the Task Force on Climate Change, with a directive to create the plan to “meaningfully address the effects of climate change and create a clean energy economy in Wisconsin.”  The last thing Wisconsin needs is to be investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure that would continue enabling the mining, transport, and burning of the dirtiest fuel on the planet.  

The DNR has an opportunity to protect Wisconsin from these disasters and not allow Enbridge to build this new pipeline segment. It is simply too risky. With the new knowledge that new pipelines spill even more frequently than older pipelines, a new pipeline segment will offer no added protection from a spill. If Enbridge had their way, they would continue operating Line 5 forever, throwing money into court battles that allow the pipeline to continue operating until a catastrophe happens. The Evers Administration needs to shut down Line 5 for good.

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Elizabeth Ward
Elizabeth Ward

Elizabeth Ward is the director of the statewide branch of the Sierra Club. In this role, Elizabeth oversees the chapter's work on priority issues and supports volunteers and leaders across the state. Prior to assuming the role of chapter director in December of 2020, Elizabeth directed the chapter's conservation programs since 2010. She enjoys hiking and biking in Wisconsin's beautiful places.