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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).

Photo Credit: US EPA, Public Domain. Retrieved from Wikimedia commons.

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.

Photo Credit: US EPA, Public Domain. Retrieved from Wikimedia commons.

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:


Header photo:  Lake Superior, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, T. Van Deelen.

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Thank you Tim, sound the alarm.

  • Keith Mannes says:

    Tim… Thank God for this and for what you’ve said.
    Our son has spent much of the past year protesting at the sites where Enbridge is pushing its crushing agenda forward.
    To describe Enbridge as “slick” is exactly right. The money Enbridge pours into “the powers that be” is astounding, and the brazen-ness of their “by-out” of those powers is stunning.
    The fact that you know what you’re talking about is evident so clearly every time you write something, so I am deeply grateful for some additional factual and scientific basis to add to the brutal stories our son shared with us. He suffered to stand against it.
    Right about now, everybody is weary and frightened. We have so many things to think about, and nobody wants another battle to fight. It is exhausting. But this is not the time for easy living. It is a time for willing sacrifice and communal dedication.
    Thank you for your courage and prophetic voice.

  • Sue Poll says:

    Thank you for this article, Tim. This fight should have been over long ago, and yet we are still debating this issue. It’s so frustrating.

  • Tom says:

    This is all well and good and Enbridge has been a bad actor. Bu re: the desire to “keep that oil from being extracted in the first place, creating additional incentives to convert to renewable energy sources”, I would appreciate seeing serious and realistic plan for either replacing that energy (or forcing people to live without it, which would drastically reduce the quality of life for most everyone, especially the poor).
    It would be good to know your position on nuclear power as that seems the only realistic alternative to carbon based fuels. ‘Renewable sources’ typically means wind and solar. Per the US Energy Information Administration, in 2020 the U.S. consumed approximately 63 Quads (1,000 trillion BTUs) of end-use energy (that’s all energy to power buildings, lighting, vehicles, manufacturing, etc.). Meanwhile, in 2020 wind and solar produced approx. 1.5 Quads, so that’s an enormous gap that’s hard to see making up anytime soon. Add in that fact that other tribes and environmentalists are working to block mining of the precious metals required to build solar panels and batteries and it becomes quite the conundrum.
    Maybe you do have a realistic solution to that conundrum, but it seems disingenuous to simply advocate stopping oil production and shifting to renewables without acknowledging the near impossibility of doing so except over the very long term, a long term in which we will still need a lot of oil.

    • Tim Van Deelen says:

      I understand that stopping oil production immediately is unrealistic. But any realistic vision of Christian justice requires us to support the development needs of the poor, the functioning and thriving of creation, and climatic conditions we need for growing our food and avoiding triggering dangerous feedbacks that make conditions even worse. That requires, according to an astonishingly robust scientific analysis, reducing GHG emissions as fast as we can. Hence, our plan must be premised on keeping fossil fuels in the ground as much as possible. There is an upper limit to the amount of GHG that the global commons can absorb safely, and we are over budget. Growth of absolute CO2 emissions over the past 25 years was caused mainly by increasing carbon footprints of the top 10% in terms of wealth. The national average carbon footprint in the United States is 14.5 tCO2. In Europe its 6.3 tC02. In China its 4.5 tCO2. Consequently, there are substantial gains to be realized just in conservation reigning in our profligate and reckless consumption and these gains offset the modest increases in carbon emissions needed to reach targets under United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 1 (lifting more than one billion people out of poverty, It will require a full slate of policy and technical changes including carbon pricing (cf. Micheal Mann and Katherine Heyhoe), movement of energy subsidies from fossil fuels to renewables, and changes in every sector towards efficiency and renewables (transportation, food production, manufacturing etc.), and yes, possibly judicious use of nuclear power. We really don’t have a better choice and I think that rhetorically holding “the poor” hostage to justify our current unjust emissions is disingenuous.

    • Debra K Rienstra says:

      And in case you don’t want to take just Tim’s word for it, here’s a brand new, in-depth article by Bill McKibben explaining how the energy transition is possible:

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    Thank you Tim. I really appreciate your truth speaking about the ineffectiveness of personal change. It is important to live with integrity and do everything we can personally to align with our public pressure, but it is not enough and it never will be. There is another honest and integrity filled answer to this specific problem and likely many more earth keepers action. It seems like the heart of your call to action is to rend the church from the Empire and then act accordingly to the call of Christ, particularly in our care for creation. The Christian church in its marriage to Empire laid the foundation (the Doctrine of Discovery) for the US to violently take the land of indigenous people, breaking treaties, violent removal, etc. Might we simply confess, apologize, and then press the Empire to give the land back to the tribes we stole it from? This feels like true justice, and it has the added blessing of giving the land back to people who actually know what earth keeping looks like. I know this is unlikely to happen, but it is justice and we ought to call for it. We can still advocate and work within the system to find creative answers, but the system is rotten and there are limited answers for justice for God’s creation in a system created upon injustice.
    I know my comments are off the well worn path of earth keeping, so again, thank you for raising the issue.

    • Tim Van Deelen says:

      I think the issue you raise here is vital to understanding fundamental reasons why big-C western Christianity is so feckless in earthkeeping. I think it’s similar to the work being done in rooting out luring lurking patriarchy and white supremacy in the contemporary church. More reading and thinking for me to do.

      • Rodney Haveman says:

        I think you have it right. If you want to read an unsettling book concerning these issues from a native American perspective try “Unsettling Truths” by Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah. It has unsettled me, and I’m still struggling with some of it, and how to respond to the issues it raises, but much of what I wrote above was pushed out of me by the book.

        Thanks for both of your responses above.

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