Enbridge and Canada’s Attack on Water Rights to Keep Line 5 Open

Canada is standing with Enbridge to dismantle core State and Tribal rights to protect land and water in an attack that impacts all states and all Indigenous Nations across the US and Canada. Even worse, Canada has provided no justification for that decision other than regurgitating debunked claims made by Enbridge, as Enbridge doubles down on operating Line 5 to failure.

Devastated waterways

I became aware of Enbridge in 2010 after one of Enbridge’s other pipelines, Line 6b, devastated waterways where I grew up. That Enbridge failure destroyed 40 miles of the Kalamazoo River when over one million gallons of Canadian tar sands crude spewed from a six-foot gash that took Enbridge 17 hours to discover.

To say that event—and Enbridge’s behavior following it—was terrifying doesn’t begin to illustrate the overwhelming fear, harm, and hopelessness that the communities experienced. The river was closed for years, and the waterways changed forever. Hundreds of families fled their homes, poisoned by the toxic fumes. Thousands of wildlife vanished, thousands more were contaminated and long term impacts are still unknown.

oiled heron
The health impacts to wildlife and people, from Enbridge 2010 toxic tar sands spill, are still unknown. Enbridge has refused to consider or fund long-term studies. Credit: EPA/USFWS

Enbridge wasn’t prepared to safely operate Line 6b then. Twelve years later, that hasn’t changed and their operation of Line 5 is an imminent risk to the Great Lakes. Since the Kalamazoo River disaster, Enbridge continues to claim they’ve learned a lesson. But the last decade of direct engagement with them tells a completely different story.

Violating rights

The facts are in the headlines: “Enbridge denies own report noting Straits oil pipeline losing coating” or “Enbridge violates easement for years,” among others.

pipeline coating damage
Michigan officials required Enbridge to disclose the condition of Line 5 in the Great Lakes, which revealed major failures to the required protective coating, the pipeline has never been properly supported and the pipeline continues to have undetected damage from passing boat anchors. Video still image obtained via FOIA.

These are not sensationalist, click-bait stories. These are factual, reported, journalistic features, and Enbridge cannot be trusted to keep their word. In fact, Enbridge often self-sabotages with company missteps: Its own boat anchors have damaged Line 5 multiple times.

The evidence is overwhelming: the only lesson Enbridge learned after 2010 is that they need to spend big on PR and community gifts to rewrite history and try to win back public opinion. Researchers at Progress Michigan have tracked Enbridge’s ad buys and for 2021 Enbridge spent over eight million dollars in Michigan alone, with spending in 2022 tracking much higher.

And despite the claims in these ads, Enbridge’s refusal to shut down Line 5 has nothing to do with fuel prices or energy supplies; they are doing this because Line 5 brings Enbridge, particularly their CEO and shareholders, $1-2 million every day they continue to illegally operate the pipeline. 

Enbridge has gotten away with illegally operating this pipeline, without a valid easement, because they have successfully lobbied Canada to do their political bidding. By activating a never-before-used 1977 treaty and interjecting in Enbridge’s unfounded federal legal claims, Canada firmly stands with Enbridge in their effort to override the rights of citizens and Indigenous Nations to clean water. Enbridge and Canada are also conveniently overlooking the Tribal Treaty rights of 12 federally recognized tribes in Michigan that superseded an oil treaty that was established without Tribal consent and fails to consider shifts in our energy policies as well as environmental awareness. 

Canada is taking the position that no state, Tribal or even the federal government could shutdown “infrastructure that transports hydrocarbons” across the Canadian border, actively attempting to dismantle the state and Tribal sovereignty that Michigan Governor Whitmer and Attorney General Nessel are fighting to protect, including core rights to protect land and water from clear threats. 

spill map
The University of Michigan warns that over 700 miles of shoreline are at risk from a Line 5 rupture in the Great Lakes, which would be nearly impossible to clean up and would bring years of harm to citizens, businesses and Indigenous Communities.

Canada is attempting to hand over 20% of the world’s freshwater, including the drinking water for 10 million Canadians, to an oil corporation that has lost its license to operate, for a pipeline that has alternatives and should have never been placed in the Great Lakes 70-years-ago. 

The good news is that Governor Whitmer and Attorney General Nessel remain committed to protecting these rights and implementing alternatives to Line 5, which are already being put in place. 

Now we need Biden to step up! Please ask President Biden to fulfill his duty by also standing up against oil and international attacks on State and Tribal sovereignty. 

Also, Canadian’s can reach out to officials, through our partners at Environmental Defence Canada, and ask them to uphold citizens rights to clean water over the private interests of Enbridge.