Over the course of a 10-hour hearing that lasted well past 1 a.m. on Thursday, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the public explored the deep policy divide over the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline project in northern Wisconsin. Opposition witnesses came from Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois and elsewhere. Many called for the pipeline to be decommissioned.
On the other end of the spectrum, Republican legislators and pipeline workers spoke out saying Line 5 is vital to Wisconsin’s economic future. By the hearing’s end, more than 140 people had spoken against the pipeline’s construction of the hearing’s nearly 300 attendee’s.
“It’s too bad we don’t have bipartisan support in opposition to pipelines,” Tom Nelson, currently the Outagamie County Executive and a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, told Wisconsin Examiner. “Because this goes to quality of life.”
Nelson was among those who spoke in opposition to Line 5. “Line 5 should be stopped, plain and simple,” Nelson testified. “It’s an aging relic that threatens our environment, undermines the next generation of Wisconsin jobs, places an undue burden of risk on Wisconsin localities and violates the heritage and sovereignty of Wisconsin’s First Peoples.”
Republican Congressman Tom Tiffany was the evening’s first witness, praising the project. “The Line 5 pipeline is vital to Wisconsin and our country,” said Tiffany. “The completion of this project is important for affordable energy, public safety and jobs.”
According to Enbridge, Line 5 transports up to 540,000 barrels of crude oil, synthetic crude and natural gas liquids per day. Some of these materials are then refined into propane. Tiffany stated that “pipelines are the safest and most efficient way to carry energy products.” He cited a claim by Enbridge that without Line 5, an estimated 2,100 trucks would need to travel each day from Superior to transport the product currently handled by the pipeline.
Enbridge is an $85.64 billion Canadian-based energy company which maintains a network of pipelines and infrastructure projects throughout North America. The Line 5 pipeline was built in 1953, and runs 645 miles from Superior, through northern Wisconsin and the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan, before ending near Sarina, Canada. The Wisconsin segments of Line 5 run through Douglas, Ashland, Iron and Bayfield Counties, with about 12 miles of the pipeline crossing into the Bad River Reservation. Following legal action in 2019, however, Enbridge was compelled to reroute Line 5 away from the reservation. The line still crosses the Bad River watershed, leading to some of the project’s continued opposition. Opponents have also criticized rebuilding the pipeline, more than half a century old, for prolonging the use of fossil fuels.
Across Wisconsin’s western border in Minnesota, Enbridge’s plans for its Line 3 erupted into clashes between law enforcement and indigenous water protectors and their allies. Federal law enforcement agents, including from the Department of Homeland Security, descended on water protectors, who have staged daily actions from entrenched encampments. The Canadian Enbridge company also paid $500,000 to Minnesota state law enforcement to conduct pipeline-related operations. Wisconsinites who joined the resistance in Minnesota also faced rough arrests and electronic surveillance. Winona La Duke and other indigenous leaders from the resistance in Minnesota have called for the decommissioning of Wisconsin’s segment of Line 5.
Those sorts of clashes haven’t yet occurred here in Wisconsin. With the Bad River tribe objecting to the pipeline still running through its watershed, an alternative plan would move it farther from tribal lands. That project would involve the construction of about 41 miles of new 30-inch-diameter crude oil pipeline. The DNR has produced a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) focusing on the rerouting project for public review prior to Wednesday’s hearing. The DNR also announced on Feb. 2 that the period for gathering public comment would be extended 14 days, and will now close on March 18, 2022.
10 Hours on both sides of Line 5
Wednesday’s hearing was conducted entirely virtually. In his testimony, Tiffany noted that he, along with many within his congressional district, relies on propane to heat his home during the winter. “We’ve all seen just how quickly the price of propane can change in just this year alone,” he said. “This pipeline is crucial to ensuring that Wisconsinites have access to reliable, affordable energy. Propane is carried through this line, and we need to make sure that we have access to it.”
Joining Tiffany and echoing many of his points was State Rep. David Steffan (R-Green Bay), vice-chair of the Assembly’s Committee on Energy and Utilities. Representatives from Pipeline and construction unions and local residents also voiced support for the project, praising its economic value and the jobs it would provide. “This is about security,” Tiffany said. “Job security, economic security, and national security for all Americans, including Wisconsinites.”
According to the draft EIS, Enbridge anticipates needing 700 workers throughout the mainline construction, with half provided by contractors and other staff hired through local unions. While many workers would need to be relocated to the job site, the EIS noted that the local economy could benefit as construction workers patronized local restaurants, gas stations, grocery stores, hotels and motels.
On the negative side, the EIS stated that spills from the line could hurt the $32.5 million tourism industry that Ashland, Bayfield and Iron counties depend on for more than 1,400 jobs, about 43% of jobs in the region. It also noted that while hunters and anglers could relocate in the event of environmental damage, “low-income populations may have limited access to transportation to reach unpolluted areas.”
Witnesses speaking against the pipeline project far outnumbered those who testified in favor of it. “We shouldn’t even be here today,” said Mike Wiggins, chairman of the Bad River Band, whose testimony followed Tiffany’s.
Wiggins asked why the Environmental Impact Statement was even on the table for a pipeline which he called unnecessary. Enbridge has assets invested in several other pipeline and infrastructure projects, he noted. “It’s obsolete,” said Wiggins of Line 5. “It’s ready to fail, it is failing. It’s time for Line 5 to go.”
Wiggins also pushed back against the notion that Enbridge is honoring the Bad River Band’s requests by diverting the pipeline away from the reservation, because even with the most recent proposed rerouting, it would cross the Bad River watershed. “The only thing that we have ever asked of the oil company is to get out of our water,” said Wiggins. “And that has been rejected, that has been disrespected, and essentially ignored.”
Like many others, Wiggins highlighted the need to move away from fossil fuel projects prone to eco-contamination like Line 5. “We can’t afford in this day and age to have a foreign corporate oil pipeline in American’s drinking water, in the Lake Superior drainage basin, and in our tribe’s drinking water,” said Wiggins. Trust in the company’s responses to spills was also wounded last year, he added, when it was discovered that Enbridge waited over a year before reporting a 2019 oil spill in south-central Wisconsin to the DNR.
That same year, a bill making it a felony to trespass on a pipeline project site passed with bipartisan support in Wisconsin’s Legislature and signed by Gov. Tony Evers. Penalties for violating the law could result in six years in prison and a fine of $10,000. The EIS noted that if local authorities enforce it, “this criminal statute could create impediments to tribal members’ access to public lands within the Ceded Territory in which to engage in cultural activities such as hunting, fishing, and gathering” under the state’s treaty with the tribe.
Climate change, storms and environmental risk
Nelson has positioned himself as a pro-labor populist in the field of Democrats seeking the party’s nomination to take on Republican Sen. Ron Johnson in November’s election. He has also made climate change policy a key part of his campaign.
Interviewed before Wednesday’s hearing, Nelson questioned why some Democratic officials and office-seekers support climate change policy, yet also support pipeline expansions.
“We all know that these are not the easiest issues, these can be controversial issues, but it all comes down to doing the right thing,” Nelson told Wisconsin Examiner. “When I went on my 72-county listening tour last summer, it was clear that Line 5 was one of the top issues, if not the top issue in the North Woods.” He added: “When push comes to shove, this is when we find out who’s the real leader on this issue.”
Many who called in during the hearing highlighted what they felt were deficiencies in the draft EIS. “The draft environmental review falls short of what the law requires and what the people of Wisconsin deserve,” said Tony Wilkin Gibart, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates. “Given the significant risks associated with pipeline construction, the DNR must do more by holding Enbridge’s proposal to the highest possible environmental scrutiny.”
Testifying earlier, Rob Lee, a Midwest Environmental Advocates staff attorney, called the Enbridge plan “a clear threat to the health and safety of Wisconsin communities and the natural resources on which they rely.” In a statement, he offered support for “those who have asked the DNR for more than just a cursory environmental analysis of the proposal. They want a meaningful and thorough look at how their communities and the surrounding landscape would be harmed by this project.”
From 2001 through 2020, according to the draft EIS, there have been 16 crude oil spills in Wisconsin, releasing 12,979 barrels of oil and costing nearly $16.5 million to clean up. In the U.S. over that period, 1,157 spills have released 725,755 barrels of oil. The draft also observes that heavy rainfall events have increased — which another part of the document acknowledges is likely due to climate change — with some storms bringing 10-16 inches of rain to the counties where Line 5 would be re-routed.
“Rainfall events of this extreme nature increase the likelihood of pipeline exposure and damage,” the EIS states. “Additionally, any spills that may occur are greatly complicated by rain events. The high flow rates seen in the region’s flashy streams increase the risk of hazardous material being quickly swept downstream making cleanup and containment all the more difficult.”
Many who spoke against Line 5 expressed the fear that its longevity flies in the face of reducing fossil fuel dependence, despite the increase in extreme weather events and despite the vows of over 100 countries after the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in November 2021 to cut methane gas emissions by 30% by 2030.
In his interview with the Wisconsin Examiner, Nelson emphasized that Line 5 won’t serve the U.S energy market at all. “This is Canadian product for Canadians,” he said. “The only reason why it’s going through northern Wisconsin is because Ontario doesn’t want it on their land. How silly is that? They’ve gotten away with this for 64 years. Now they want this for another 90-plus years.”
The line is soon to be obsolete, he suggested.
“Think about this,” Nelson said. “Are we going to be dependent on fossil fuels in 20 years, let alone 90 years? I hope not. This isn’t the kind of investment we should be making. This is going in the wrong direction.”
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