Keep Line 5 Where It Is

There’s no better example of intractable sides stubbornly ignoring an obvious solution than the Line 5 debate in northern Wisconsin.

Here’s the background. Line 5 is a petroleum pipeline owned by Enbridge, a Canadien company. The line runs from Superior across northern Wisconsin into the UP, through the Straits of Mackinac and down to the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. The oil and gas wind up at refineries in Canada, Detroit and Toledo, but some of it stops off in the UP where the line provides 65% of the propane used there. It’s possible that the propane I use at our place near Watersmeet comes from Line 5.

The line was built in 1953 and the easement on the 12 mile crossing of the Bad River reservation expired about a dozen years ago. The tribe refused to renew the easement and now Enbridge has proposed a 41 mile reroute around the reservation. Environmentalists and some local governments oppose that. They want the line shut down altogether. You can read Enbridge’s take (“Nothing to see here!”) here and the Sierra Club’s position (“Disaster is inevitable!”) here.

Line 5 runs from Superior to Sarnia, Ontario.

But does it make any sense to take 12 miles of risk for an oil spill and turn that into 41 miles of risk? Does it make any sense to shut down a major petroleum pipeline before we’ve transitioned to fossil-free energy sources?

The line has had a history of spills in northern Wisconsin, most of them just east of the Bad River reservation. That’s why Enbridge has to do better by hardening and monitoring the line.

It seems like the obvious, prudent and sensible answer is to leave Line 5 where it is as it passes through the reservation, but to require Enbridge to redouble its efforts to monitor, repair and harden the line. It would also make sense to shorten the next easement to, say, 20 years with the idea that by then the line wouldn’t be needed.

The reroute would replace 12 miles under sensitive lands with 41 miles under equally sensitive land.

I understand the tribe’s concern about a potential spill in some pretty sensitive areas. But the 41 mile solution is worse than the 12 mile problem. And the idea that we should force ourselves to stop using fossil fuels by just shutting down fossil fuel energy sources is unreasonable. The U.S. is already moving rapidly in the right direction on that score without such extreme measures. Our overall greenhouse gas emissions are down to what they were in 1990 and the trend is accelerating.

And what about social justice? Shutting down Line 5 would lead to higher heating and energy costs for some of the most depressed areas in the country, including Native American communities.

The smart way to go, as is often the case, is the moderate solution. Keep the line where it is but make Enbridge harden it and it monitor it more closely while phasing out its use over the next couple of decades.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

4 thoughts on “Keep Line 5 Where It Is

  1. I’m much more concerned with that stretch under the water. We really shouldn’t put something like that under a water resource as valuable as the Great Lakes. Not smart to roll the dice on that.


  2. I’m curious what is the tribe’s leverage in this situation? Have they been collecting additional fees since the easement expired? Do they really want it gone or are they building a negotiating position?

    Also not needed in 20 years is just a wild ass guess. I liken it to the Y2K bug…no one thought all those systems would still be running in the year 2000.


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