Energy & Environment

Why Is Gretchen Whitmer Trying to Shut Down an Essential Pipeline?

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer addresses the media in Midland, Mich., May 20, 2020. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)
After the Colonial Pipeline hack, the Michigan governor should know better. One of her predecessors does.

Former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm’s response, as the U.S. Secretary of Energy, to the closure of one pipeline appears to be at odds with the plans of her Democratic ally and current governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer. Granholm, while scrambling to address a cyberattack-induced closure of a major East Coast pipeline, said in a press briefing that “pipe is the best way” to transport fuel. But Whitmer is attempting to forcibly close a regionally important pipeline. One of them is wrong.

In praising pipelines, Secretary Granholm publicly undercut President Biden’s policy of shuttering major pipeline projects. Unfortunately, during the press briefing, she also made light of fuel shortages, noting that “if you drive an electric car, this would not be affecting you.”

The secretary’s comment clearly ignores the fact that electric-vehicle owners were similarly affected during the rolling blackouts that struck Texas in February or the seemingly annual spate of summer blackouts that now plague California. Of course, as we move further along the road toward the “green energy” policies pushed by the Biden administration, these EV-stopping blackouts will affect a growing number of Americans.

Governor Whitmer presumably was aware that Secretary Granholm had supported pipelines as the best option for transporting fuels. Yet, last week, in an op-ed at the Washington Post, she was still defending her campaign to shut down Line 5, the pipeline that provides essential energy and tens of thousands of jobs to the Great Lakes region.

She hasn’t presented a strong case for why we should shut down infrastructure that provides 65 percent of the propane used by Michigan residents in the state’s upper peninsula. Instead, she resorted to tone-deaf adages coined by environmental groups, such as “oil and water don’t mix.” She also suggests that the jobs and the energy that people need to power their lives should be sacrificed in favor of her plan to protect a portion of the Great Lakes from an oil spill.

The pipeline being targeted by Whitmer’s plan is the twinned, 20-inch-diameter, four-and-a-half mile section of Line 5 that crosses the Straits of Mackinac where Michigan’s peninsulas come together. Line 5 was installed in 1953 and transports up to 540,000 barrels of light crude oil and natural-gas liquids each day from Superior, Wis., through Michigan, and out to Sarnia in the Canadian province of Ontario.

The fuels transported by Line 5 provide 55 percent of Michigan’s statewide demand for propane. Line 5 also provides gasoline and diesel that is used throughout the entire Great Lakes region, as well as the jet fuel that powers flights out of many of the region’s major airports.

A recent report by the Consumer Energy Alliance explains how the loss of Line 5 could lead to a $20.8 billion loss in economic activity and as many as 33,755 lost jobs across the four-state region of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana. Canadian experts echoed concerns about “a significant, violent reaction economically” if the governor’s closure mandate came into force, as Quebec could lose as much as 66 percent of its source for oil and Ontario could lose 50 percent.

Despite the obvious economic benefits the pipeline provides, Whitmer unilaterally revoked a nearly 70-year-old contract with Enbridge, the company that operates the pipeline. Her actions required the company to discontinue all Line 5 operations by May 12. But an ongoing lawsuit questions whether the state had the jurisdiction, with Enbridge arguing that this question must be answered before the governor’s policy may go into effect.

And Enbridge is not alone. The company’s decision to wait for a court order echoes what Michigan’s attorney general has publicly admitted. In a statement to the Detroit News, Lynsey Mukomel, a spokeswoman for the attorney general, said, “The jurisdictional issue will not be decided until sometime after May 12,” adding, “We need a court order that requires Enbridge to shut down in compliance with the notice.”

But Whitmer is plowing ahead anyway. In her Washington Post op-ed, she threatened to “disgorge the company of all profits unjustly earned from Line 5 while trespassing on state land,” if Enbridge dared to operate the pipeline beyond her closure date.

Sadly, the governor’s actions cement the notion that the state is prone to unreasonable and arbitrary swings in policy. Businesses will find it difficult to trust that the state is willing to work with them to avoid unnecessary regulatory disruptions. The move could also leave thousands of residents throughout the region wondering how they will find work or pay for the propane they need to heat their homes in the coming winter.

Ironically, there is no need to impose any of these energy-restricting policies. Whitmer claims to be protecting the Great Lakes from an oil spill, but her protestations ignore the numerous safety and pressure tests the pipeline regularly passes.

Additionally, her own actions have stalled the permitting processes that could both protect the Great Lakes and maintain essential energy infrastructure. The governor and Michigan’s AG have worked together to roll back a state law that allows Enbridge to relocate the pipeline from the waters of the Great Lakes to a proposed concrete-lined tunnel 100 feet below the bed of the Great Lakes.

Criticisms of Whitmer’s action come from a broad and growing coalition of business, labor, and government. Officials from a variety of political outlooks and on both sides of the U.S.–Canadian border have publicly supported the pipeline and the tunnel project.

In 2019, the governor of Ohio, Mike DeWine, sent a personal letter detailing the negative impacts of the planned pipeline closure on his state. Officials from Ohio and Canada have testified before Michigan Senate committees on the value of the pipeline to the region. Senior Canadian government representatives — including Federal Minister of Natural Resources Seamus O’Regan Jr. and Canadian Consul General in Detroit Joe Comartin — have echoed these concerns and explained that the pipeline is essential to Canadian energy security. Representatives from the United Steelworkers union and the building trades have made similar pleas to protect the pipeline and build the tunnel.

In June last year, 23 of 51 Michigan House Democrats voted to approve a House resolution calling for “the timely issuing of permits for the construction of the Great Lakes Tunnel Project.” Another Democrat State House representative, Brian Elder, even took the unusual step of forming a House labor caucus, claiming that a “Sierra Club scorecard means more to some Democratic members than the position of the building trades.”

The historical record provides clear lessons. Blackouts in Texas and California, as well as the recent shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline, serve as recent and poignant reminders of the need for reliable energy. Senior government officials cannot escape the fact that taking deliberate actions to limit access to abundant, affordable, reliable energy has an immediate, direct, and profoundly negative impact on the lives and well-being of the public.

Energy providers and transporters should do everything that is economically and technologically feasible to minimize the environmental impacts of the energy systems we all rely on daily. At the same time, governors, both current and former, have a duty to ensure that citizens have ready access to that energy so they can live healthy, prosperous, productive lives.

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