I am pressed and angry.
Public comments are due on the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) to permit Enbridge Energy Corporation to re-route its line 5 petroleum pipeline around the Bad River Reservation. Enbridge’s line 5 is the same pipeline conveying 540,000 barrels (22.7 million gallons) per day of oil extracted using hydraulic fracturing in the Bakken formation (aka tar sands) under the straits of Mackinaw in two pipelines that are corroded, deformed, and operating beyond their engineered lifespan and outside of engineered specifications. The draft EIS is over 700 pages of text, tables, and technical diagrams.
The Bad River Tribe exercised its tribal sovereignty in 2019 and sued Enbridge, effectively declining to renew easements for line 5 to cross tribal lands – including crossing the Bad River itself.
Their goal, to protect the water. The Bad River feeds into Kakogan sloughs, one of the largest freshwater estuaries known and home to vast expanses of wild rice (manoomin) that are sacred to Ojibwe people and are priceless nurseries and food sources for fish and wildlife communities of Lake Superior’s Chequamegon Bay. They are wetlands whose importance and uniqueness are recognized internationally (RAMSAR designation: National Natural Landmark).
Enbridge offered the Bad River tribe $24 million to settle the lawsuit and $2 million annually while the pipeline was in use. The tribe (roughly 7000 people, 13% unemployment) said no.
That, The Twelve readers, is what earth-keeping looks like.
Bad River Tribal Chairman Mike Wiggins: “No amount of compensation is worth risking Wenji-Bimaadiziyaang — an Ojibwe word that literally means ‘From where we get life.’ It’s time to end the imminent threat the company is presenting to our people, our rivers, and gichi gami (Lake Superior). It’s not only an infringement of our sovereignty, but a burden felt by our people having to engage in the perpetual chase for the next pipeline rupture. It’s time to stop the flow of oil immediately.”
EIS documents related environmental, social, and economic effects of big projects like re-routing a pipeline and must evaluate alternatives including a “no action” alternative. Federal and State laws require these analyses for decision makers. I appreciate the work the regulators put into the draft EIS. It’s a soul-sucking job for people who are attracted to natural resources agencies because they love the earth. As EISs go, this one is pretty thorough. I have my nits to pick but there is a stark inadequacy that I must criticize.
In every alternative analyzed, the underlying presumption is that the volume of oil conveyed by line 5 must be transported. Hence, the “decommission line 5” alternatives have higher greenhouse gas emissions because constructing a new pipeline or transporting the same volume though tanker trucks, railroads, or barges requires more fossil fuel consumption. This, of course, plays into Enbridge’s interests and says essentially that the only checks on the damage that fossil fuels cause to poor communities, nature, and the accelerating climate crisis are the capacity of the infrastructure and the efficiency of the oil industry itself.
The important alternative to be analyzed and promoted is one where line 5 shuts down and needed regulatory constraints on the transportation system work to keep that oil from being extracted in the first place, creating additional incentives to convert to renewable energy sources (which is what I will argue). Call it the “earth-keeping alternative.”
Given the urgency of the moment, we need creative policies to move away from fossil fuels as fast as we can, finding ways to keep the oil in the ground – especially when that oil is extracted using damaging technologies. If this means retiring an aging pipeline that is uniquely risky to the Great Lakes, all the better. That’s not naïve, that’s imagining a response commensurate to the crisis we face – and being faithful.
Enbridge, of course, knows the regulatory and political machinery well and they play the game with slick PR campaigns, political patronage, and cynicism. They claim that their preferred alternative “honors” the tribe’s concerns by routing the pipeline minimally around the reservation but still within the Bad River watershed where inevitable spills continue to threaten the same river, the same estuary, and the same Lake Superior. They are part of a coalition that is suing to prevent rules for greater oversight in sensitive areas and they famously sought (bought?) a sweetheart deal with Michigan’s former Governor Snyder to bore a tunnel under the straits for their pipeline. Michigan’s current Governor Witmer is fighting heroically to remove this stupid blight from the Great Lakes (which might be my next essay).
Enbridge would like the environmental review of the Bad River reroute and the straits crossing to occur in isolation from each other even though both are linked because they facilitate the transport of oil in line 5. Hence the Bad River project carries the cumulative risks inherent in the straits crossing and vice versa.
Enbridge’s slick PR campaigns say “trust us.” So let’s consider: Since 1968, line 5 has failed at least 29 times spilling over a million gallons of oil. In 2010 Enbridge testified to Congress that it could detect a spill “almost instantaneously.” Ten days later, Enbridge line 6b ruptured and pumped crude oil into a Marshall, Michigan wetland on the Kalamazoo River for 17 hours before it was detected. That spill was 843,444 gallons and Enbridge’s clean-up and mitigation was unable to remove or recover 20% – meaning that roughly 168,000 gallons of oil remain, contaminating soils, sediments, and groundwater. The National Transportation Safety Board reported the cause of the disaster was Enbridge’s negligence.
The lesson for Christian earth-keepers is to learn to play the game as well and then to show up.
Earthkeeping happens in public policy decisions. Those policy decisions typically require public input but there is an investment one must make in learning where input matters and when it needs to occur. Companies like Enbridge know. Companies like Enbridge would like you to think that if you just recycle, and drive a hybrid, and maybe go vegetarian one night a week that you are doing enough.
The lesson for Christian earth-keepers in that your personal environmental piety has very little impact. And we don’t emphasize this enough, but faith-driven earthkeeping requires you to exercise your civic-life agency – your voting, the issues you pay attention to, the environmental organizations you support, your willingness to show up and be the voice for the voiceless parts of creation.
If you love the Great Lakes, you can start here: https://forloveofwater.org/
Header photo: Lake Superior, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, T. Van Deelen.