oil pipeline. conceptual, not Line 5

We Must Shrink—Not Expand—Oil Infrastructure Like Line 5

October 5, 2021 |

Above: Oil pipelines make a mighty contribution to global warming, a fact that must be reflected in permit decisions like the one now being decided for Line 5. Conceptual photo of oil pipeline, by Rodion Kutsaev.

Michiganders are united in their love of the Great Lakes, and a majority—including our governor and attorney general—are proving their love by calling for eliminating Line 5 from the open waters of the Great Lakes to prevent a catastrophic oil spill. Even Enbridge, the operator of the 67-year-old pipeline, is acknowledging the spill risk by proposing to put the pipeline in a tunnel under the Great Lakes—but unfortunately for 99 more years.

What Enbridge doesn’t want to acknowledge is that the oil the pipeline carries is already causing a catastrophe—significantly damaging the Earth’s climate.

On what planet would it make it sense to invest in an expensive, perilous oil tunnel under 20% of the world’s freshwater when all scientific evidence is screaming that we are overdue in our transition away from fossil fuels? Certainly not on this planet. Earth is already showing obvious and devastating effects of human-caused climate change, and so is the Great Lakes region. Floods, drought, wildfires, and record heat waves are becoming daily headlines, and climate scientists have proven that burning fossil fuels is causing these lethal and expensive events.

Yet Enbridge persists with the tunnel proposal to protect the company’s massive investments in oil infrastructure. Enbridge’s million-dollar marketing campaign in Michigan focuses on the past, back when renewable energy was more expensive than coal and oil, and electric technologies like electric cars and affordable electric home heat were unproven. Enbridge is hoping to delay the inevitable transition to renewables by denying the truth and by misleading policymakers and the public to distract them from headlines that portray a successful renewable energy future that has already begun. 

The Michigan Public Service Commission has already confirmed that considering climate impacts is well within the scope of the commission’s environmental review of the tunnel permit. Just this past week, two key Groundwork partners—the Michigan Climate Action Network (MiCAN) and the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC)—provided the MPSC with compelling testimony from internationally respected climate scientists and economists that spelled out the impact the pipeline tunnel would have should it be approved. And it’s not pretty:

  • If the tunnel were to be built, 27 million metric tons more CO2 would be released to the atmosphere each year than if Line 5 is permanently shut down. This is the equivalent of adding 6.8 new coal-fired power plants or nearly 6 million new cars to the road in terms of greenhouse gas emissions;
  • Continued flow of fossil fuel would result in net climate costs of at least $40 billion
  • Increased CO2 would lead to more extreme weather events including torrential rainstorms, high winds, droughts, warm winters and late frosts, that will worsen weather instability in the region;
  • Combustion of the fossil fuel would worsen Devastating human health due to pollution, extreme heat events, invasive ticks and other pests, and infectious disease;
  • Permit approval would defy other climate goals, such as Traverse City’s and Petoskey’s 100% clean energy goals, Michigan’s carbon neutrality goal, and international treaties, such as the Paris Climate Agreement. 
  • If built, the pipeline tunnel would also ignore clearly stated concerns and legal treaty rights of sovereign tribal nations.

The expert testimony also proves that we can get by just fine without moving oil through Line 5. First, if Line 5 shuts down, a massive, fully functioning network of oil pipelines will still serve Michigan and the Great Lakes region, and they will ensure there is no immediate shortage of oil. Second, technology advances like electric cars, affordable electric home heat, and energy efficiency improvements will steadily decrease the consumption of fossil fuels. Electric heat pumps are already replacing propane for residential heating in places like Ontonagon, in the far reaches of the Upper Peninsula. Michigan-manufactured electric vehicles are on a fast-track to replacing gas engines. We’ll need far fewer oil pipelines in the years ahead.

It makes no sense to expand the capacity of fossil fuel infrastructure while we are racing desperately to eliminate fossil fuels. The testimony provided by ELPC and MiCAN experts shows without doubt that a Line 5 tunnel will damage the earth and darken the futures of our children and our children’s children, and that we simply don’t need Line 5 anyway.

Jim Lively

Jim Lively is Groundwork