Resistance to the fossil fuel industry is growing as never before. Standing Rock transfixed the world with its inspiring example of what can happen when people come together to protect land, water, and future generations. Climate deniers may be in power, but thousands of mayors, governors, tribal leaders, CEOs, and university presidents across the U.S. are declaring “We are still in!” on the Paris Climate Agreement. And young people are on the move. Seventeen-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has inspired hundreds of thousands of young people around the globe to rise up to demand climate action.
Here in Wisconsin, we’re joining with local, state, and regional allies to block Enbridge’s tar sands expansion.
The Enbridge Octopus
Enbridge, a Canadian company, wants to expand its pipeline network throughout the Midwest to transport tar sands from the Canadian boreal forests to the Gulf Coast, primarily for export. With aggressive campaigns on the East and West Coasts opposing export plans, Enbridge is seeking to make the Midwest a tar sands freeway to get the oil south.
Enbridge’s Line 61 travels through Wisconsin from Superior to Delavan (click here for map), then crosses the Illinois state line and continues south to refineries. Enbridge is close to tripling Line 61’s capacity from the original 400,000 barrels per day (bpd) to 1.2 million bpd—45% more than the Keystone XL and 155% more than the Dakota Access Pipeline.
But Enbridge’s plans don’t stop with Line 61. The company has conducted surveys for a Line 61 “Twin” (aka Line 66) that would carry an additional 1.2 million bpd through the same corridor. Plans for a Line 61 Twin appeared in Enbridge’s 2015 and 2016 investor reports.
Enbridge currently denies any intention to build a new pipeline and has removed mention of the “Twin” from its reports, but astute observers can see that without a “Twin,” a glut of oil will back up in Superior, Wisconsin. Upgrades to existing pipelines will increase the flow of oil into Superior by 350,000 bpd. Enbridge’s so-called Line 3 “replacement”—approved by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission but still likely to be challenged in court—would add an additional 535,000 bpd. This would mean a total of 885,000 bpd of additional oil seeking a way through Wisconsin on its way south. As one observer put it, “They may have deleted the slide [in their investor presentations] that talks about the pipeline, but you can’t delete the basic arithmetic.”
What’s more, the fate of Enbridge’s Line 5 is more uncertain than ever. Line 5 crosses the Straits of Mackinac, a narrow waterway connecting Lakes Michigan and Huron. As people grasp the implications of a possible spill into the Great Lakes, outcry is growing. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel campaigned in 2018 on the promise to shut down the line. One of the alternatives to Line 5 suggested by a 2017 study would reroute the oil through Wisconsin, increasing the possibility that Enbridge would seek to build Line 66.
Line 5 is under attack in Wisconsin as well as in Michigan. A 12-mile portion of the aging pipeline traverses the Bad River Reservation along the shore of Lake Superior. Several of the easements that allowed Enbridge to use the tribal territory expired in 2013, and the tribe demanded that the company remove the pipeline—from the entire watershed, not just their territory. Enbridge refused, and the Bad River Band filed a federal lawsuit. Enbridge responded by stating its intention to reroute the pipeline south of the reservation but still within the watershed, putting the entire Great Lakes ecosystem at risk. The Bad River Band is actively resisting, and other groups are taking up the fight. In addition to the tribe, the broad coalition includes landowners in the path of the proposed reroute, the Sierra Club, the Wisconsin Safe Energy (WiSE) Alliance, Oil and Water Don’t Mix, Honor the Earth, 80 Feet Is Enough!, the Wisconsin Easement Action Team, 350 Madison, and more. Click here to ask Governor Tony Evers and the DNR to work to decommission and remove—not reroute—Line 5.
Were the existing Line 61 and a new Line 66 to reach full capacity, 2.4 million barrels of tar sands oil would flow through Wisconsin each day. While the overseas oil markets would see the benefits, Wisconsin and other Midwestern states would take all the risks. Enbridge was responsible for more than 800 spills between 1999 and 2010, including the largest inland oil pipeline spill in U.S. history— the 2010 Kalamazoo River disaster.
As Kalamazoo made clear, tar sands spills are even more devastating than classic crude oil spills. Tar sands oil must be diluted with toxic chemicals to allow it to flow through a pipeline. With a spill, these chemicals evaporate, sickening people in surrounding areas. Meanwhile, the heavy tar sands oil sinks to the bottom of waterways, making cleanup nearly impossible and exceedingly expensive (for Kalamazoo, $1.2 billion and counting in cleanup costs, a $176 million settlement with the federal government, a $75 million settlement with the state of Michigan, and $5.4 million in reimbursement for federal costs).
Tar sands oil is also far more carbon-polluting than conventional fossil fuels. Top climate scientist James Hansen has said that continued expansion of tar sands extraction means “game over for the climate.”
Dane County vs. Enbridge
350 Madison has played a pivotal role in the fight against the Midwest tar sands invasion. In Dane County, our determined intervention convinced the county Zoning and Land Regulation Committee to impose a precedent-setting cleanup insurance requirement. Three months later, however, the GOP Wisconsin Legislature nullified the action via an 11th-hour budget amendment that precludes a county from requiring a pipeline company to obtain insurance if the company already carries comprehensive general liability insurance with coverage for sudden and accidental pollution liability.
Enbridge sued the county over the insurance requirement, while we helped landowners bring suit against Enbridge, asserting that the statute precludes enforcement by counties but not citizens. The Dane County Circuit Court ruled for Enbridge, but in May 2018, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the county and its landowners had the right to know they would be protected in the event of a spill and underscoring that the insurance condition was “integral to the consideration of a permit.” The court further concluded that Enbridge had failed to show it carried the type of insurance required to trigger the statute.
in late June 2018, Enbridge appealed the decision to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The court granted review in September of that year and took the unusual step of hearing oral arguments in the case on March 26, 2019. Three months later, on June 27, the conservative court reversed the Court of Appeals in a 4-1 decision (see this blog post for an analysis).
Despite this disappointing outcome, it can be said that 350 Madison’s efforts delayed the Line 61 expansion for nearly three years, reducing tar sands transport through Wisconsin and costing Enbridge dearly. For more on the case, see 350 Madison vs. Enbridge.
The Way Forward
We are working with key grassroots partners to mobilize resistance to Enbridge’s “all risk—no reward” plans for Wisconsin and the entire Great Lakes region. Our goal is to build this resistance into a broad, sustainable coalition determined to stand in the way of Line 66 and any further Enbridge expansion. The movement is growing: Rural landowners, farmers, tribal leaders, climate activists, environmentalists, youth activists, and other concerned citizens are coming together and finding common ground.