On May 10, the Executive Council of the Bay Mills Indian Community, located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, took the extraordinary measure of voting to formally banish Enbridge Energy’s Line 5 pipeline from the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron converge. The banishment, a customary but infrequently invoked form of tribal law, coincided with the May 13 deadline set in a parallel action by Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Last November, Whitmer officially revoked Enbridge’s easement granting the company permission to locate and operate Line 5 on the Straits’ bottomlands, over which the state holds jurisdiction.
Enbridge has disregarded both orders. As a result, the company is now in defiance of both state and tribal authority and is trespassing in Michigan and in Wisconsin, where the company also continues to operate Line 5 despite expired easements on the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa reservation and a demand by the Band to remove the pipeline from tribal lands and its watershed.
Nearly seventy years into its operating life, Line 5 has thus become the locus of settler colonial historical reckoning, regional public debate over the energy future, and a potential U.S.-Canada geopolitical standoff. And while the Line 5 debate has much in common with other contentious North American pipeline projects of the past decade—Northern Gateway, TransMountain, Energy East, Keystone XL, Dakota Access, Line 3, among others—it is also distinct from them. Twenty-first century pipeline politics have mainly been defensive, devoted to preventing, thwarting, blocking, stopping, or resisting new pipeline projects as a step toward ending fossil fuel combustion and slowing the pace of global warming. Opposition to Line 5, by contrast, is predicated upon what is arguably an even more radical proposition: the deliberate decommissioning of already existing fossil fuel infrastructure.
Opposition to Line 5, by contrast, is predicated upon what is arguably an even more radical proposition: the deliberate decommissioning of already existing fossil fuel infrastructure.
When it was built in 1953, in the midst of the Great Acceleration, Line 5 was viewed as a techno-industrial triumph, a marvel of pipeline engineering and a symbol of fossil-fueled civilizational progress. Constructed as one segment of what at the time was the longest pipeline in the world, stretching from the newly discovered oil reserves in the Edmonton region to expanding refineries in Sarnia, Ontario, Line 5 solved the transport problem posed by frozen shipping channels in the Great Lakes. Construction of the Straits segment, in particular, was cause for celebration. The Detroit Free Press viewed it as part of an almost mythical historical transformation. “Paul Bunyan dropped his log chain and sulked in defeat when the pipeline builders moved into Michigan,” the paper crowed as it presented images of crowds on the shores of the Upper Peninsula, eager to watch crews pull long lengths of welded steel pipe across the Straits.
For most of its operating life, Line 5 remained invisible, its submergence beneath the Straits a metaphor for what the literary scholar Patricia Yaeger termed the “energy unconscious.” But otherwise hidden infrastructures have historically revealed themselves in moments of failure. This is the case with Line 5, which only became an object of public interest in the years after another Enbridge pipeline ruptured near Marshall, Michigan in 2010, spilling more than a million gallons of diluted bitumen into the Kalamazoo River. That catastrophe, the result of a cascade of corporate operational failures, placed Enbridge’s regional operations under scrutiny, yielding an alarming report on the history and condition of Line 5 produced by the National Wildlife Federation titled “Sunken Hazard.” Highlighting the potential damage of a massive oil spill in the world’s largest body of fresh water, the report helped spark a grassroots movement composed of environmental organizations, tribal groups, climate activists, concerned citizens, and business groups. The movement has grown so much in size and intensity that in 2018 it helped elect both a Governor and an Attorney General whose campaigns included promises to shut down Line 5.
In response to growing public pressure, and with the support of the previous gubernatorial administration and the state legislature, Enbridge has proposed a twentieth-century solution to a twenty-first century problem: a billion-dollar infrastructure scheme to place the segment of Line 5 beneath the Straits inside a newly built concrete tunnel drilled deep into the lake’s bedrock. Enbridge claims the tunnel would eliminate current dangers such as anchor strikes from passing cargo ships and, in the event of a spill, prevent oil from being released into the lakes. At present, Enbridge is seeking approval for the tunnel plan from the Michigan Public Service Commission in a process that is certain to drag on for a considerable length of time. Numerous intervenors are working to convince the Commission to reject Enbridge’s application, not least because it would lock in oil transport for another hundred years.
Meanwhile, Enbridge has mobilized its industry and labour allies in a public relations campaign devoted to preserving refinery and construction jobs in Canada and the United States. The company is also seeking relief from Michigan’s shut down order in U.S. federal court, arguing that only the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has authority over the regulation of interstate pipelines. And on yet another front, Enbridge claims that Michigan’s action runs afoul of a 1977 bilateral treaty between the United States and Canada that prohibits either nation from impeding the operation of an international pipeline (the agreement was originally reached to facilitate the transport of natural gas from Alaska into Canada). Although the treaty has not been formally invoked, the Canadian government has cited it in an amicus brief filed in the federal case in support of Enbridge.
But as the Line 5 controversy plays out in these multiple sites and at multiple scales—as a matter of regulatory oversight, competing sovereignties, and international diplomacy—tribal groups and activists continue to pressure elected officials and regulators to consider matters, like historical injustice and the energy future (not just the present), not typically within the purview of narrow administrative procedures, courts of law, or international commitments to the cross-border flows of commerce.
The Bay Mills Indian community banishment, for instance, invokes the 1836 Treaty of Washington, which in exchange for the cession of almost half the land that is now Michigan, granted the Anishinaabe people permanent fishing and hunting rights and the continuation of their relationship with the land and water. The five tribes, including Bay Mills, comprising the Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority alliance insist that the continued operation of Line 5 imperils those rights and their traditional lifeways.
The material facts of Line 5—its location beneath the water, the fact that it is already built rather than under construction—in some ways limit it as a physical site of charismatic political action like the protest camps at Standing Rock or the occupation of Enbridge’s Line 3 construction sites in Minnesota. But Line 5 nevertheless possesses unique conceptual power for pipeline politics and for the politics of climate and energy transition broadly: it reveals beginnings as ends and ends as beginnings. Stopping Energy East, halting Line 3, and insisting upon #NoDAPL, are actions that seek to prevent the new as a step toward ending future flows of oil. But the decommissioning of Line 5 would cut off oil that is already flowing, marking it as the first major example of a conscious and deliberate undoing of the world that has brought us to the brink of planetary emergency. The call to shut down Line 5 recognizes its end as the precondition for a new beginning; it imagines dismantling as a form of world-building.
Jeffrey Insko is Professor of English at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan.