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Election 2022: What's Line 5 have to do with it?

The Mackinac Bridge on a stormy day, with dark rain clouds overhead
Lexi Krupp
Interlochen Public Radio
Line 5 splits into twin pipelines just west of the Mackinac Bridge, and crosses along the lakebed for four miles. (Photo: Lexi Krupp / Interlochen Public Radio.)

Editor’s note: This week, IPR News is looking at some of the major issues voters will consider when they head to the polls next week, and highlighting races where that issue has come up. Election Day is Nov. 8.

While Line 5 itself is not on the ballot, the debate around the future of the 69-year-old pipeline is linked to many other topics this election cycle. Candidates and voters’ opinions on Line 5 are formed at the intersection of energy security, climate change, clean water, the economy and more.

The pipeline runs from northwest Wisconsin to southern Ontario, but most of that route is in Michigan — about 645 miles of it. Four of those miles are underwater in the Straits of Mackinac; that crossing has been a talking point in state politics for over a decade.

And since the last election year, the conversation has ramped up.

In November of 2020, Governor Gretchen Whitmer filed suit against Enbridge, the company that operates Line 5. She terminated its easement in the Straits of Mackinac, which has allowed Enbridge to cross those state waters since 1953. Whitmer’s order said Line 5 poses an “unreasonable risk” to the freshwater of the Great Lakes.

But Enbridge hasn’t complied with that order – and the company says its working to safeguard the pipeline.

“Really the ultimate solution is to take the pipe off the lakebed,” said Bob Lehto, regional operations manager for Enbridge.

Lehto said the proposed Great Lakes Tunnel would do just that: house a replacement section of the pipeline underground, 100 feet below the waters of the straits.

“It’s really the best of both worlds,” he said. “You get to keep the absolutely necessary movement of energy going through Michigan, while protecting the environment to the greatest extent possible.”

At Enbridge's information center in St. Ignace, a mural depicts the inside of the Great Lakes Tunnel.
Patrick Shea
Interlochen Public Radio
At Enbridge's information center in St. Ignace, a mural depicts the inside of the Great Lakes Tunnel. (Photo: Patrick Shea / Interlochen Public Radio.)


Despite the tunnel project being approved by former Gov. Rick Snyder in 2018, Gov. Whitmer’s order gave Enbridge six months to shut down Line 5 entirely.

On the day that deadline arrived, Barb Stamiris of Traverse City joined hundreds of demonstrators in a march towards the Straits of Mackinac. Stamiris says the nearly 70-year-old pipeline is an oil spill waiting to happen, and that building the tunnel will take too long.

“A tunnel with a pipeline in it is safer than an open pipeline, but it doesn’t magically appear,” said Stamiris.

Stamiris said she became especially concerned about Line 5 running any longer after a ship’s anchor struck the pipeline in 2018. She said building the tunnel is a dangerous delay.

“Best case-scenario, let's say, it would take them about 6 years,” Stamiris said. “Then we’ve got the old pipeline going all that time. It’s no solution.”

Others see the project as the best way to prevent another anchor strike.

Tim Trelfa of Presque Isle spoke with IPR right above the Straits of Mackinac during the 2021 labor day bridge walk — nine months after the governor’s shutdown order.

“I’m more concerned that there’d be spills if we don’t build the tunnel,” Trelfa said. “Imagine how many semis, tankers, are gonna be coming across the bridge and the danger with that. I’m so pro-tunnel. We gotta have it.”

Enbridge says it would take 2,100 tanker trucks to move the product Line 5 currently carries if the pipeline is shut down.


Democrat Barb Conley and Republican John Damoose are pictured in portraits from campaign websites.
Democrat Barb Conley and Republican John Damoose are both vying for the 37th District state senate seat. (Source: campaign websites)

Since that 2021 bridge walk, nothing has changed on the lake bed. That’s despite legal battles between Enbridge, the State of Michigan and tribal nations throughout the Great Lakes.

The Straits of Mackinac sit within Michigan’s 37th Senate district. That’s where Republican John Damoose of Harbor Springs is up against Democrat Barb Conley of Northport. At the Cherry Pie Debates earlier this month, both candidates were asked about protecting clean water. Both turned to Line 5.

“Well there’s no question, everyone here lives here because of the water. This is our greatest asset,” said Damoose. “I like this idea of this tunnel to get the pipeline out of the water here.”

Like many races in Michigan, these candidate’s stances on Line 5 fall firmly along party lines. Barb Conley supports a shutdown, and not the tunnel project.

“If a leak happens, not only will it spoil our recreational opportunities but it will also ruin probably all of our tourism,” said Conley. “We’ve got to press for closing Line 5. And I do understand it’s an international issue right at the moment.”

That international issue is all about Canada. Line 5 carries mostly Canadian oil to Canadian refineries, and a 1977 treaty with the United States is meant to prevent the two countries from shutting down pipelines that cross the border.

But there are also treaties with sovereign tribal nations in Michigan and Wisconsin that are meant to ensure access to hunting, fishing and gathering for the tribes. All 12 of Michigan’s tribal governments say Line 5 and the tunnel project threaten those rights.That’s all litigation that the next state senator from the 37th district will have nothing to do with. But a candidate’s position on Line 5 is reflective of their stance on the environment – and there’s actually some common ground there.

At the Cherry Pie Debates in Glen Arbor, Damoose commented on popular yard signs reading “No oil in our water.”

“And I think, ‘my goodness, who wants oil in their water?’” Damoose said.

The answer is nobody. Of course nobody wants an oil spill in the Straits of Mackinac. But where positions diverge is on what the most prudent way to prevent that is.

Some say Michigan should keep pushing for a shutdown. Others want to see Enbridge break ground on the Great Lakes Tunnel.

In the meantime, Line 5 still carries about 22 million gallons of crude oil and natural gas liquids through the Straits of Mackinac every day. And as long as that’s the case, we can expect to hear about it come election season.