Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has repeatedly attacked Michigan’s governor and attorney general in order to build support for an Enbridge crude oil pipeline, seizing opportunities on Fox News and social media and traveling to the U.S. to strategize with political allies.
Locals urging the aging pipeline be closed down fear it could imperil drinking water for tens of millions of people. Some wonder why Kenney, who has claimed Alberta is bullied by foreign-backed environmental advocates, has no problem intervening in the decision-making of a jurisdiction beyond Canada’s borders.
"The premier ought to take care of things that are directly impacting the citizens of Canada and let the people of Michigan take care of things that directly impact the citizens of Michigan," said David Holtz, a spokesperson for the environmental group Oil & Water Don’t Mix, based in northern Michigan’s Traverse City.
Last June, Kenney notified his 173,000 Facebook followers that Michigan’s leaders are trying to decommission Enbridge’s Line 5, a nearly 70-year-old pipeline traversing the state. Line 5 serves as a shortcut for moving Alberta crude oil to refineries in Sarnia, Ontario, accounting for about 70 per cent of the oil it carries.
The pipeline, which was built in 1953 and runs under the Straits of Mackinac between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, is losing its protective coating and was damaged by an anchor several years ago. In August, Enbridge revealed a 25-metre segment was unsupported due to erosion caused by strong currents, and said it was acting to re-anchor the section.
A worst-case-scenario spill would pollute 643 kilometres of Michigan coastline, a state-ordered risk analysis concluded.
Yet Kenney has said that Line 5 poses "no pressing or legitimate environmental concern."
In September, Kenney went on Fox Business and told host Stuart Varney that Alberta is "facing a bit of a threat from the governor and attorney general of Michigan who are trying to shut down Line 5, which delivers half a million barrels a day to the Great Lakes states."
Several days later, Kenney and Ontario Premier Doug Ford travelled to Ohio to meet with Republican Governor Mike DeWine, a vocal supporter of Enbridge’s project, "to discuss the potential threat of a Line 5 shutdown," according to the Edmonton Journal.
This November, Kenney cheered on a court ruling in favour of the oil pipeline, which remains the subject of several ongoing legal challenges. The premier’s office didn’t respond to The Tyee’s request for an interview.
By intervening in what has become Michigan’s biggest environmental battle, Kenney is working directly against the wishes of residents like Rick Jones, a former Republican state senator whose family was personally affected during Enbridge’s disastrous Kalamazoo River spill in 2010, and who is an opponent of Line 5.
Jones argues the pipeline should be rerouted so that it no longer runs under the Straits of Mackinac, a proposal that Enbridge has so far refused to consider.
Jones, a life-long Republican, had these words for the Alberta premier: "What I would say to him with all due respect is ‘Why not keep the line over land? Why would you put it through the Great Lakes, endangering drinking water for 40 million people, endangering the $7-billion fishing industry, endangering the Great Lakes that bring tourism into Canada? Why would you endanger all of that when you could simply run the lines over land safely?’"
Enbridge didn’t respond to The Tyee’s request for an interview.
The bursting of Enbridge’s Line 6B pipeline 10 years ago resulted in 843,000 gallons of oilsands crude pouring into a tributary of the state’s Kalamazoo River — a $1.3-billion disaster that federal investigators later determined could have been prevented if Enbridge had done a better job of maintaining the pipeline.
"That was the worst oil spill in Michigan ever," Jones said. "It polluted the river, and my own mother-in-law had to sell her home to Enbridge because many homes you couldn’t stand to live in them because the odour was so bad."
In the aftermath of the spill, Beth Wallace began doing research about other pipelines that pose potential risks to the state’s land and water. That was how she found out about Line 5, a twinned pipeline running through the Straits of Mackinac built the year Dwight Eisenhower took office as president.
"If either of those pipelines leaked, the resulting oil slick would likely devastate some of the lakes’ most bountiful fisheries, wildlife refuges, municipal drinking water supplies and one of the region’s most popular tourist attractions: Mackinac Island," Wallace wrote in a 2012 report for the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). "A significant rupture would cause an Exxon-Valdez scale oil spill spreading through Lakes Huron and Michigan, the heart of the largest freshwater seas in the world."
The NWF sent a dive team with video cameras to inspect the pipeline. They found evidence of corrosion with some sections of pipeline covered in debris.
"We released the first set of footage from that in 2013," Wallace said. "Having the public see some of those images is when that issue really started to have some momentum."
Grassroots organizations like Oil & Water Don’t Mix formed to pressure state leaders to decommission Line 5 and force Enbridge to ship oil on alternate routes. By 2017, the opposition had grown to include "a coalition of activists, businesses, residents and, increasingly, some strange-bedfellow politicians. Their voices are bipartisan, their motivations intensely personal, with officeholders who may agree on little else invoking intimate connections with Michigan’s lakes and streams in challenging Enbridge," according to Bridge Magazine.
These pipeline opponents included former Republican legislative leader Ken Sikkema, who told Bridge that members of his conservative evangelical church worried about the project. "They’re very concerned about Enbridge and just the notion that there’s a pipeline on the bottomlands of the Straits," he said. "There’s a queasiness about it."
Jones, then a GOP state senator, introduced legislation that would have banned future oil pipelines in the Great Lakes, a move he said was fully consistent with conservative principles. "I believe in the state constitution that requires me to do everything possible to safeguard Michigan’s natural resources," he said, adding, "The most precious thing to Michigan, and to the area of Canada that surrounds the Great Lakes, are the Great Lakes."
Democrats swept the state in the 2018 midterm elections. With the support of new governor Gretchen Whitmer, new Attorney General Dana Nessel launched legal actions against Enbridge, including an effort to revoke the easement allowing Line 5 to use the state’s lakebed, as well as a separate case challenging a last-minute deal Enbridge made with the previous Republican governor that would let the company build a tunnel around the pipeline and keep it operating.
"In the event of a catastrophic oil spill, the people of the state of Michigan could be left holding the bag for more than a billion dollars in unfunded liability," Nessel has argued. Her office didn’t respond to The Tyee’s media request.
‘That pipe has grown like Pinocchio’s nose’
Enbridge says that it takes concerns about oil spills extremely seriously. A spokesperson has described the 2010 spill as "one of the darkest periods ever for the company." Every new Enbridge employee reportedly receives a ring made out of the actual pipe as a reminder of the disaster.
Yet Enbridge doesn’t seem to be winning over many Michigan residents. "I think universally people just absolutely don’t trust the company," Wallace said.
Part of that is due to the fact that Enbridge spent years denying that there was any damage to the protective coating of Line 5, even though it had internally discovered corroded patches bigger than dinner plates. "Enbridge owes the people of Michigan, the advisory board and the state an apology," the director of the Michigan Agency for Energy Valerie Brader said in the wake of those revelations.
More recently, Enbridge waited two months to tell state agencies that a 40-foot boring pipe it was using broke off into the Straits of Mackinac during sample work around Line 5. Then, in late January, the company revealed that the broken pipe was in fact 200 feet long.
"In the grand scheme of things, this is likely a little flap," reads an editorial in the Traverse City Record-Eagle newspaper. "But in this circumstance, that pipe has grown like Pinocchio’s nose, which in turn, can turn little trust issues into big ones."
Nor does it help that Enbridge has been on a public relations and lobbying offensive across the state, arm-twisting county officials to support the pipeline, running full-page newspaper ads claiming "We’re working to protect Michigan’s water," and meanwhile sending a private security contractor to monitor Indigenous anti-pipeline activists.
"There’s just a pattern and practice with Enbridge of lies," Holtz of Oil & Water Don’t Mix said. "They can’t be trusted."
Kenney: ‘Alberta will no longer be a passive spectator’
Premier Kenney claims that the fight against Line 5 is nothing more than a coordinated effort led by "special interests" to "landlock Alberta’s ethically produced energy."
In Ohio last year, Kenney set up a strategy meeting with "key energy industry groups." Seated at a boardroom table in front of a large American flag, they discussed how to shut down the legal challenges brought by Michigan’s Attorney General Nessel against the pipeline.
"Alberta will no longer be a passive spectator in these attacks on our energy," Kenney tweeted. "We are building alliances to defend our vital economic interests, and those of our friends in the US & around the world."
But Kenney’s conjuring of a conspiracy of liberal special interests doesn’t square with the backgrounds of opponents like Rick Jones. The retired Republican state senator doesn’t belong to any environmental or advocacy group. He’s not even opposed to oil pipelines or Enbridge in general. But he’s seen just how devastating an oil spill can be and he is determined not to let another one happen in Michigan.
"I don’t believe we should ever cross the Great Lakes with something so dangerous," Jones said of the oil being shipped in Line 5. "It’s just not worth the risk."
That view is shared by Michigan resident David Holtz of Oil and Water Don’t Mix. In telling Kenney to butt out, he said: "The Great Lakes are far, far more important to Michigan than the profits of a Canadian oil transport company. That shouldn’t be hard for him to understand."