An oil pipeline has been driven through the heart of Michigan’s Great Lakes. Here’s why that’s dangerous, and why it’s unnecessary.
MICHIGAN—Talmadge Creek in Michigan’s Calhoun County is small yet significant. A narrow tributary, it winds and twists, emptying into the north branch of the Kalamazoo River.
More than 11 years ago, the creek offered relaxing spots to sit beside when seeking a place to watch the sunrise or the sunset. But now, it offers a reminder of the risks that come with underground pipelines.
“Here we are a decade later, we still have that pipeline operating in our Great Lakes,” Liz Kirkwood, an environmental attorney and executive director of For Love of Water, told MLive in 2020, on the 10th anniversary of the spill. “Now, we have the knowledge. Now, we know what it could be.”
In July 2010, a pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy broke, leading to one of the largest inland oil spills in US history. More than 1 million gallons of thick, crude oil spilled, flowing into Talmadge Creek and then into the Kalamazoo River.
And the immense amount of contamination wasn’t all the spill caused. The spill also allowed the sludge to sink into the bottom of the waterways, while hydrocarbons included in the oil leeched toxic fumes into the air. Homes and businesses were evacuated, at least temporarily. Some moved away from the area for good.
Fast forward to today, and Enbridge owns and operates another pipeline that runs below the Straits of Mackinac connecting Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, below the majestic Mackinac Bridge. The pipeline carries petroleum from the western side of Canada to the eastern portion of the country.
The idea of having a large oil pipeline driving through the heart of the world’s great source of freshwater seems risky. And it is, especially considering Michigan’s own history with oil spills.
Heat Without Line 5
In the 1950s, when Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline was commissioned, such a risky pipeline may have seemed like the only option. Technology—and the familiarity with green energy solutions—weren’t what they are today.
In 2021, that has changed. There are now many known ways to heat your home without the petroleum flowing through Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline, and many of these options are already in use across Michigan.
Take, for example, heat pumps, which offer an alternative to gas-fueled heating systems in many homes across the country. This type of furnace works like central air but without forced air. Its air-source systems draw in air, extract heat, and then disperses it throughout your home. Ground-source systems absorb heat through pipes in the ground before dispersing that inside.
The only necessity? Electricity.
There are other fueling options available, too. Biomass systems utilize plants and vegetation as a fuel source and can prove more cost-efficient to heaters that burn high-cost oils and electricity.
Another option growing in popularity is solar energy solutions, which utilize sunlight to draw in energy. While this is the cleanest energy source, it has some drawbacks in its initial implementation cost, which makes it a little less accessible for some Michiganders.
But one detail that unnerves many of the pipeline’s opponents? For Michigan, the pipeline keeping some people up at night isn’t even necessary to begin with.
High Risk, No Reward
You can’t talk about Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline without talking about Michigan. State leaders have vehemently opposed the pipeline in recent years, leading to closed court battles with the energy company as well as several campaigns to spread awareness over the company’s prior mishaps.
And why would Michigan leaders—including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer—so strongly oppose the pipeline? Because if a substantial leak were to occur, Michigan and its residents would potentially be the most vulnerable.
The company has already admitted to some near misses with the current pipeline flowing through the straits.
In April 2018, a barge and tugboat hit Line 5 with a six-ton anchor, denting the pipeline and slicing three underwater power cables. The mishap caused $100 million in damage and released 800 gallons of mineral oil into the Straits of Mackinac, according to Bridge Magazine.
So, why hasn’t the pipeline simply been shut down? For starters, it has a powerful ally in Michigan’s neighbor to the north. Canada has been a supporter of the pipeline, which makes sense when considering that more than 90% of the oil stays in Canada.
But the battle isn’t over, as Michigan leaders and the communities living around the straits work to protect its natural resources from a potentially hazardous spill.
“This is going to spill,” Aaron Payment, an Indigenous person and resident of the Mackinac area, told The ‘Gander in September. “It’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when.”