Episcopalians, activists raise concerns about Michigan pipeline

By David Paulsen
Posted Dec 7, 2016

The five-mile Mackinac Bridge crosses the Straits of Mackinac, connecting Upper and Lower Michigan. Photo: Ann Wilson/Facebook

[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.


Comments (8)

  1. M. J. Wise says:

    “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.”

    63 years of accident-free service would seem to indicate this is not a factually-based concerned. Does Mr. Holtz really thing it would be safer to, say, drive that amount of oil and gas over the straits? How ridiculous. Reliable fuel transport is a life and death matter in that part of the country during the winter, and decisions should be based on science, not empty-headed platitudes.

    1. L B Ellwood-Filkins says:

      “63 years of accident-free service” is what concerns me … I would like to see the internal company reports on that. The company says there were no “major” incidents. What were the “minor” incidents? How many? How minor? And since these incidents are difficult to see (spilling under water rather than on top of land) – is the company basing its knowledge of “incident” merely on pressure in the pipeline? or some more reliable measure? I think we should not be too quick or flippant in our support of oil when it also impacts the freshwater of the Earth.

  2. Kevin Miller says:

    The best part about being an Episcopalian is that we can disagree on certain issues. From the information I have read here, I don’t really see how this could become too much of an issue. We just need to stay vigilant and make sure that the work being done is done properly. It doesn’t make sense to oppose every single pipeline.

  3. Edwina M Simpson says:

    Last summer Dan Musser, Mackinac Island resident and business owner, published an article in the Detroit Free Press that gave the clearest explanation of why the pipeline needs to be closed and another build in another location. For one thing the pipeline is old but more importantly the straits are not a good place for a pipeline, probably would not be allowed if being build today. The Great Lakes are key to US economy so is it really worth it to continue risking a breakage in that line. Just remember the Kalamazoo River pipeline breakage!

  4. Mike McLane says:

    Sort of a “head-in-the-sand” issue. If the pipeline is taken out of service, the oil WILL flow in trucks on the road OVER THE WATER. Which is more likely, traffic accidents involving oil spilled INTO the water or a “possible” leak in the buried pipeline? At least the pipeline can be monitored for integrity and inspected remotely, if need be.

  5. F William Thewalt says:

    Count me as one Episcopalian that is not concerned about the pipeline joining Michigan’s two peninsulas and providing energy to a area that receives serious cold weather in the winter. The long record of safety sways me as does the fact that all the hoopla will make Enbridge extra cautious. I simply cannot comprehend all the cries to revert to a situation where people are forced to pay more for energy just because some activists don’t like it.

  6. Ronald Davin says:

    Perhaps some of our pipe line experts and water protectors could now be dispatched to Nigeria where with their all knowing expertise, they could supervise the reconstruction of that Church that collapsed and killed so many people.

  7. Selena Smith says:

    Thanks to Bishop Ray, the church is finally publicly joining people of many denominations and political parties who have been spoken out against the pipeline for several years in Michigan, as well as local governments have voted against it. But where are the voices of the other 3 Michigan bishops whose people are affected by the pipeline? Their silence is disappointing, troubling. and demonstrates a lack of courage and compassion for all of God’s people and creation,
    Same company for the straits pipeline is the one responsible for the pipeline which broke and spilled into the river in Kalamazoo.

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