FLOW Urges Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority to Halt Action on Unauthorized ‘Line 5’ Oil Tunnel
Proposed project Fails to Comply with Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act and Public Trust Law
FLOW, an independent Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City, Michigan, filed formal comments today with the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority, calling on the body to halt any further implementation of Enbridge Energy’s proposed Line 5 oil pipeline tunnel until the authorizations and approvals required by public trust common law and statute have been applied for and obtained.
The Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority and Enbridge have not applied for, nor received, the required legal authorization from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy to proceed with the oil pipeline tunnel. Canadian-based Enbridge hatched the tunnel scheme with the former Snyder administration to replace the 67-year-old decaying Line 5 pipelines in the open waters of the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron.
“The oil tunnel negotiators and parties’ attempt to bypass the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act (GLSLA) and the public trust law constitute one of the most egregious attacks on citizens’ rights and sovereign public trust interests in the Great Lakes in the history of the State of Michigan,” saidFLOW Founder and President Jim Olson.
“The Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority must understand that it is subject to the public trust doctrine and law that applies to the Great Lakes and the soils under them,” said Olson, a water law and environmental attorney. “When Michigan joined the United States in 1837, it took title as sovereign for its citizens under the ‘equal footing’ doctrine to all of the navigable waters in its territory, including the Great Lakes, and ‘all of the soils under them’ below the natural ordinary high-water mark. These waters and the soils beneath them are held in, and protected by, a public trust.”
The public trust doctrine means that the state holds these waters and soils beneath them in trust for the public for the protection of preferred or dedicated public trust uses of navigation, fishing, boating, swimming, bathing, drinking water, and other recreation. There can be no disposition, transfer, conveyance, occupancy or use of any kind of these public trust waters and the soils beneath them, unless there is a statute or law that expressly authorizes that action.
The State and Enbridge must first obtain authorization under the GLSLA for the public-private partnership to establish a long-term agreement for the 99-year lease and occupancy agreement for a tunnel or pipeline in or through the soils and bottomlands of the Straits of Mackinac.
FLOW, as well as a coalition of state-wide public interest organization making up the Oil & Water Don’t Mix campaign, contends that boring an oil tunnel in and through the soils for an oil tunnel is not only subject to these public trust laws, but that crude oil pipelines in the or under the Great Lakes are not a solution given the risks and threats to the Great Lakes, its people, businesses, and communities. FLOW, OWDM, and other communities and organizations have also called for the shutdown of the 67-year old existing line 5 because of the immediate threat to the Straits and the risks posed by the pipeline’s more than 400 stream and river crossings in the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. Enbridge’s proposal to allow electrical lines and other infrastructure to occupy the proposed oil pipeline tunnel is a bad idea that poses an explosion risk. There is adequate capacity in the thousands of miles of the Enbridge crude oil pipeline system to meet its needs for Michigan and Canada without the perilous existing Line 5 or crude oil tunnel for another 67 years.
Court accepts amicus briefs supporting enforcement of State of Michigan public trust duties in Enbridge’s lawsuit
Jim Olson, President and Founder
By Jim Olson
The Michigan Court of Claims has issued orders accepting FLOW’s and the City of Mackinac Island’s amicus briefs advancing key legal arguments in Enbridge’s Line 5 oil tunnel lawsuit against the State, rejecting opposing arguments by the Canadian oil pipeline company.
The ruling in Lansing by Judge Michael Kelly in late September means that vital issues raised by FLOW’s brief and the city’s brief will be considered by the Michigan Court of Claims, including the public trust rights of citizens to draw drinking water from and otherwise use the Great Lakes, and the soils and bottomlands beneath them, unimpaired by private interests.
FLOW’s Amicus Curiae Brief was prepared and submitted by Great Lakes environmental and public trust law experts Jeff Hyman, senior staff attorney at the Conservation Law Center in Bloomington, Indiana,and FLOW’s president and legal advisor Jim Olson. The brief traces the history of the public trust doctrine in Michigan and demonstrates the failure of Enbridge and the State to make the determinations required for authorization of the occupancy and use of waters and soils beneath the Great Lake by a private corporation under public trust law and the Michigan’s Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act (GLSLA).
“This is an important step in restoring the rule of law on Line 5,” said FLOW executive director Liz Kirkwood. “The Great Lakes belong to all of us and cannot simply be handed over to a private corporation through a hurried backroom deal by a lame-duck legislature. If Enbridge really wants a tunnel, it will have to apply under state law and demonstrate no potential risk of adverse impacts and no other alternative pipelines to transport crude oil that avoid the Great Lakes.”
Background on Amicus Briefs
On Sept. 10, FLOW filed a motion to submit an amicus brief before the Court of Claims in Enbridge v. Michigan on important questions involving violations of the public trust doctrine. FLOW noted that the future of the public trust rights of citizens and communities in the Great Lakes were violated by the 2018 “lame duck” agreements that would have contracted away the legally required review of impacts of a tunnel pipeline to the Great Lakes, fishing, drinking water, health, and the economy imposed by the constitution and law of Michigan.
In Michigan, people, organizations, and communities have a right as beneficiaries of the public trust in the Great Lakes to demand that government apply the rule of law. Where this interest would be seriously affected by the questions presented in a pending lawsuit, citizens and local governments may motion the court to file an amicus curiae brief—“friend of the court” written arguments submitted to aid the court regarding the questions and how the law should be applied.
The City of Mackinac Island, meanwhile, filed a motion and amicus brief submitted by Traverse City environmental attorneys Scott Howard and Rebecca Millican. The arguments in the city’s brief pinpointed for the Court the grave consequences to the city’s drinking water source, emergency and health services, ferry services, and tourist economy, in addition to the wellbeing of guests and residents from the continued operation of the decaying Line 5 oil pipelines in the Straits. The city’s amicus brief focuses on the invalidity of the 2018 agreements between the State and Enbridge, which purported to grant Enbridge the right to continue using and occupying the waters and soils of the Great Lakes without any authorization under the public trust or GLSLA requirements.
FLOW’s position remains that the attempt by the Snyder administration to allow Enbridge to continue operating the existing perilous Line 5 in the Straits while Enbridge spends 5 to 10 years or more designing, obtaining required authorizations under public trust law and constructing a tunnel is not a solution. An oil pipeline tunnel 10 years or more down the road does not address Line 5’s immediate threat of massive harm to the Great Lakes nor address the risk posed by the pipeline’s more than 400 stream and river crossings in the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. In addition, Enbridge’s proposal to allow electrical lines and other infrastructure to occupy the proposed oil pipeline tunnel poses an explosion risk. Oral arguments in the case have not been scheduled, so stay tuned to FLOW’s website and Facebook for periodic updates. At stake are the integrity of the State of Michigan constitution, state law, public trust doctrine, and protection of the Great Lakes, public health, and the rights of its citizen to use their public waters.
Lame-Duck Disaster and Side Deals
In December 2018, at the 11th hour of his term, then-Governor Rick Snyder and his department heads of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ)—now Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE)—signed tunnel agreements by-passing the public trust doctrine and Great Lakes submerged lands law that expressly control agreements for private occupancy and use of the waters and bottomlands of the Great Lakes.
To expedite the tunnel deal before the end of the year, the Governor and Enbridge solicited the help of the lame duck legislature to push through Act 359. That tunnel law amended the Mackinac Bridge Authority’s enabling legislation and created a new authority called the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority to cede the state’s public trust bottomlands and waters to Canada’s Enbridge.
In late December, the state DNR and DEQ, along with the Corridor Authority signed a series of agreements, including an easement, that illegally assigned the use of the public trust soils under the Great Lakes to Enbridge to locate, build, and operate a new oil tunnel for Line 5 under the Straits.
Separately, but related, Governor Snyder, DNR, and DEQ entered into a “third agreement” that sought to assure Enbridge the right to continue indefinitely the use of the bottomlands of the Straits for the existing 66-year-old Line 5 oil pipelines. Polls and public testimony show that much of public agrees the cracked and sagging pipelines must be removed as soon as possible. With its failing design, Line 5 poses an unacceptable risk of catastrophic harm to fishing, navigation, drinking water, swimming, boating, health and emergency services, Tribal rights, the ecosystem, property values, municipal infrastructure, tourism, and even the steel industry. The attempt to assure Enbridge continued use of the existing Line 5 was unlawful and grossly serious breach of the State’s duty to protect the Great Lakes.
New Leaders Apply the Rule of Law to Line 5
In early January 2019, newly elected Governor Gretchen Whitmer exercised her executive authority under the state constitution, and requested Attorney General Dana Nessel to issue a formal legal opinion on the constitutionality of Act 359 and the validity of the series of the 2018 agreements purporting to turn over the Straits of Mackinac to Enbridge for its tunnel and to continue using the dangerous Line 5. On March 27, Attorney General Nessel ruled that Act 359 and these agreements were unconstitutional, invalid, and unenforceable.
In June, Enbridge filed suit in the Court of Claims in Lansing against the State of Michigan and its departments to resuscitate the oil tunnel deal by seeking a Court order that Act 359 and all of these agreements are constitutional and otherwise valid and enforceable. A.G. Nessel and her staff responded with a motion to dismiss Enbridge’s claim because the law and related agreements are unconstitutional and violate the public trust in the waters of the Great Lakes and the soils beneath them. Enbridge responded that the law was within the powers of the legislature, and that the agreements complied with the public trust doctrine.
Underlying Legal Framework
Under the public trust doctrine, the state owns the bottomlands and waters of the Great Lakes in a trust for the protection of these waters, bottomlands, fish, habitat, and for fishing, navigation, drinking water and sanitation, boating, swimming, and other recreational pursuits. The doctrine prohibits the disposition or agreement for occupancy and use of public trust bottomlands by a private person or corporation without an express determination that the disposition falls within one of two narrow exceptions:
The purpose will improve a public trust interest or use—the water, habitat, fish, or one of the protected public uses (such as a public harbor for boating, or public drinking water works, or swimming beach); or
There is no unacceptable risk of impairment to the waters, ecosystem, or these protected public trust uses.
In 1955, Michigan passed the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act (GLSLA) to protect the public waters and lands beneath the Great Lakes. Under the GLSLA, no one can use, alter, occupy or control the soils and waters of the Great Lakes, unless authorized by the DEQ (now EGLE) after due findings that the public trust interests (e.g. navigation, fishing, drinking water) would be improved or would not be impaired.
When Governor Snyder and his department heads cut the tunnel deal with Enbridge, they contracted away these legal requirements, basically suspending the rule of law in Michigan.
You might say our leaders suspended the law and granted Enbridge an “open season” license to do what it wanted with the public’s paramount trust interests in the Straits of Mackinac. The Governor, DNR, and then-DEQ failed to require Enbridge to apply for legal authorization to continue using the existing Line or the proposed Tunnel under public trust law or the GLSLA.
As of this writing, there has been no such authorization from the State of Michigan allowing Enbridge to own, control, use, or occupy the public soils and waters of the Straits. And FLOW, the city of Mackinac Island, tribes, and citizens of Michigan aim to keep it that way.
Photo: FLOW Deputy Director Kelly Thayer speaks to the Grand Traverse County Board in opposition to a pro-oil tunnel resolution.
By Kelly Thayer
Confronted at 8 a.m. on a Wednesday by a full audience passionately and unanimously against a proposed Line 5 oil tunnel in the Straits of Mackinac, the Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners voted today to temporarily table a misguided and error-filled resolution supporting the oil tunnel. (Click here to view a video of the meeting, once posted by the county).
Some commissioners also could be heard chatting among themselves before the meeting about the voluminous amount of emailed comments against the oil tunnel that they also received in the hours leading up to the session, as local citizen groups spread the word of the pending vote.
While the outcome was received as a temporary victory in the moment by many in attendance, vigilance still is required.The resolution, which had been expected to gain quick approval, will likely come back for reconsideration — perhaps at a tentatively scheduled 8 a.m., August 14, study session — and then a possible vote at the Grand Traverse County Board’s next regular meeting at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, August 21, at the Governmental Center at 400 Boardman Ave. in Traverse City.
“I was elected to work for the public interest and the people of Grand Traverse County, not the bottom line of a foreign oil company with a troubling safety record and equally troubling transparency practices,” said Commissioner Betsy Coffia after the meeting, who was prepared to oppose the symbolic resolution. “Enbridge pays a lot of lobbyists and lawyers to carry water for them. I don’t think it’s the job of the Grand Traverse County Commission to do that work for them.”
Only one county in Michigan—Dickinson in the Upper Peninsula—to date has approved the model resolution that bears close resemblance to talking points that Line 5-owner Enbridge has circulated for many months. The resolution tabled by Grand Traverse County Commissioners proposes to send “this resolution to all counties of Michigan as an invitation to join in expressing support” for the oil tunnel owned by Canadian-based Enbridge.
Dozens of people representing themselves, families, Indian tribes, businesses, environmental groups, and others attended and many spoke up against the oil tunnel and for protection of the Great Lakes, drinking water, public trust and tribal rights, and the Pure Michigan tourist economy.
FLOW and its team of lawyers, scientists, engineers, and an international risk expert since 2013 have studied the increasing threat from Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac and, more recently, the proposed Line 5 oil tunnel.
FLOW Deputy Director Kelly Thayer read a statement calling on the county board to reject the oil tunnel resolution, which in its first sentence, incorrectly states the age of the decaying pipeline and claims an admirable safety record that is at odds with the reality that Line 5 has leaked at least 33 times, spilling a total of 1.1 million gallons of oil in Michigan and Wisconsin.
“It is critical for the Grand Traverse Board of County Commissioners to understand that—with the proposed resolution in your packet—the Board is being asked to interfere in ongoing litigation between the State of Michigan and Enbridge,” Thayer said. “In addition, there are at least four other active lawsuits against Enbridge and Line 5. Therefore, this type of resolution is misguided and not in Grand Traverse County’s, nor the public, interest.”
In March, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel found that the tunnel bill that became law was unconstitutional.In early June, Enbridge sued the State of Michigan to resuscitate the tunnel legislation. And in late June, the State of Michigan sued Enbridge to revoke the 1953 easement that conditionally authorized Enbridge to pump oil through the twin pipelines.
Attorney General Nessel’s lawsuit alleges that Enbridge’s continued operation of Line 5 in the Straits violates the Public Trust Doctrine, is a common law public nuisance, and violates the Michigan Environmental Protection Act based on potential pollution, impairment, and destruction of water and other natural resources.
“Why would the current Grand Traverse County Board, which—to our knowledge—has never studied nor discussed the threat from Line 5, take a leap of faith in supporting a Canadian oil pipeline company’s alternative that diverts attention from the real problem—the bent, cracked, and encrusted oil pipelines in the Straits?,” Thayer asked.
Enbridge wants the right to bore a tunnel in the next 5-10 years for Line 5 through State of Michigan public trust bottomlands under the Straits, where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron.
Enbridge also wants to keep pumping up to 23 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids a day through the decaying, 66-year-old Line 5 pipelines in the Straits during tunnel feasibility studies and construction. An oil tunnel also would fail to address the risk posed by Line 5’s more than 400 stream and river crossings in the Upper and Lower Peninsulas and would conflict with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s plans to combat climate change.
The City of Mackinac Island, Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, and the Straits of Mackinac Alliance citizen group also have filed a contested case challenging Enbridge’s claim that installing hundreds of anchor supports to shore up the decaying Line 5 is mere maintenance, rather than a major redesign requiring an application and alternatives analysis under the 1955 Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act (GLSLA) and public trust law that apply to the soils and waters of the Great Lakes. Line 5-related lawsuits against the U.S. Coast Guard and against Enbridge in Wisconsin also continue.
FLOW and other Great Lakes advocates have long called for shutting down Line 5, which primarily serves Canada’s, not Michigan’s, needs and threatens the Great Lakes. FLOW research shows that viable alternatives exist to deliver propane to Michigan and oil to regional refineries, and Gov. Whitmer has formed an Upper Peninsula Energy Task Force to identify energy supply options. The system can adjust with smart planning.