[Episcopal News Service] Episcopalians were on the front lines of environmental advocacy when pipeline protesters claimed victory this week against a controversial segment of a North Dakota oil pipeline. Now, Episcopal leaders are stepping up again, this time in Michigan, to seek government intervention in response to concerns about another oil pipeline.
In both cases, church leaders cite a spiritual calling to protect water resources as part of God’s creation.
The Diocese of Northern Michigan announced Dec. 7 it was asking Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to restrict the use of what is known as Line 5, a pipeline that carries oil and natural gas under the Straits of Mackinac, unless the state can guarantee there is no threat to public waters. The straits run between lower Michigan and the state’s Upper Peninsula and connect Lake Michigan with Lake Huron.
“Without water, we can’t survive. Without water there would be no life for any of God’s creatures,” said Northern Michigan Bishop Rayford Ray in an interview with Episcopal News Service. “As people of faith, we believe we are stewards of God’s creation, so we are called to be advocates.”
The diocese approved and Ray signed a resolution last month backing the recommendations of a state task force and pushing for an independent panel to verify Line 5 is safe.
The Great Lakes are the largest freshwater system on earth; only the polar ice caps contain more fresh water.
Activists in Michigan can draw encouragement from the results of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s high-profile protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Hundreds and at times thousands of “water protectors,” as the protesters and their allies self-identify, including Episcopalians, have been camped out since August at the site where Energy Transfer Partners had planned to extend the pipeline under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe, a key source of drinking water for the Standing Rock Reservation to its south.
The standoff between protectors, authorities and construction crews sparked tense clashes and arrests while drawing national attention to the case. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry visited the protest camp in late September and was among the voices urging a halt to construction on that small segment of the pipeline.
“I am grateful and humbled by the water protectors of Standing Rock, whose faithful witness serves as an example of moral courage, spiritual integrity and genuine concern for the entire human family and God’s creation,” Curry said Dec. 5 after the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers announced it was blocking the pipeline segment under Lake Oahe and recommending an alternative route be sought.
Construction is complete on most of the rest of Dakota Access’ 1,172 miles of pipeline from the Bakken oil fields of northwest North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois. Energy Transfers had asserted that the pipeline – including the Lake Oahe crossing – is safe, economical and necessary to transport North Dakota oil to markets and refineries across the country and is not backing down.
In Michigan, the pipeline already is in place and use under the Straits of Mackinac. Line 5 was built in 1953 and runs 645 miles from northern Wisconsin to Sarnia, Ontario, a little more than an hour northeast of Detroit. The pipeline company, Enbridge Energy, is in the process of installing supports for the existing pipeline, not building a new segment.
The Line 5 pipeline carries 540,000 barrels of natural gas and light crude oil a day. The company says 85 percent of residents in the Upper Peninsula and northern Michigan heat their homes with propane carried on Line 5.
“Line 5 continues to deliver energy to Michigan residents safely and reliably every day,” spokesman Michael Barnes told the Detroit News. Enbridge has applied to the state for permission to install 19 support anchors as part of its maintenance of the 63-year-old pipeline. “We all have one goal in mind — the safe operations of Line 5 and protecting the Great Lakes, the environment, and everyone who uses these precious waterways.”
But activists hope the decision in North Dakota could lead to greater scrutiny of existing and proposed pipelines elsewhere.
“This is a message to federal and state agencies to prioritize water over oil transport in vulnerable areas like the Great Lakes,” Liz Kirkwood, executive director of the Michigan-based group For Love of Water, told the Detroit News after the North Dakota decision.
The News noted that Line 5 has never suffered a major incident resulting in the release of oil or natural gas into the Great Lakes, though the 2010 rupture of an Enbridge pipeline in southern Michigan spilled oil into Kalamazoo River and raised concerns that similar ruptures could threaten other areas.
Some activists are pushing to decommission the Straits of Mackinac crossing in favor of pursuing alternatives.
“It’s just a bad place for a pipeline,” David Holtz, chairman of the Sierra Club’s Michigan Chapter, told the Times Herald in early December. “Although we are obviously using less (oil) than we have in the past, putting a pipeline in the Great Lakes and having a pipeline in the straits is just not a great idea.”
— David Paulsen is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and a member of Trinity Episcopal Church in Wauwatosa.