OMAHA, Neb. — Michigan abandoned a legal challenge to Enbridge Energy’s Line 5 oil pipeline on Monday, saying it will take its case to a Michigan state court, where the fight over the crude oil line is headed for a final fight.
The decision ends a nearly 10-year effort to remove the 112-year-old pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac — a pivotal crossing between Michigan and Ontario that’s visited by thousands of tourists each year.
Environmental groups celebrated the move, but Gov. Rick Snyder thanked Enbridge for clearing the way for the state to pursue its own lawsuit — a state court action he said could result in penalties totaling nearly $100 million.
“I am grateful that Enbridge will support a constructive solution through the state court in Michigan and am hopeful that that we can continue the discussion to resolve the problems associated with Line 5,” Snyder said in a statement.
Enbridge Energy spokesman Graham White said the company “remains committed to finding a workable solution in conjunction with Michigan officials.”
Last month, U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge rejected Enbridge’s arguments that a state Department of Environmental Quality rule requiring oil to be removed if it breaks is a violation of federal law.
As part of a settlement announced Monday, Michigan will drop its case in the federal court and switch to a state court challenge. The settlement requires Enbridge to pay a $1 million penalty and work with the state to identify areas where the pipeline could be removed.
Greenpeace Michigan Executive Director Steve Tynan called the decision a “surprising and major victory” for the public.
“This law isn’t government overreach. It’s common sense,” Tynan said. “The Trump administration simply doesn’t get it. The failure to remove Line 5 from the Straits of Mackinac was an embarrassment, and we’re glad the state has stepped up to right that wrong.”
The fight over Line 5 is underway in the latest chapter of an ongoing struggle between Enbridge, which operates the pipeline, and environmentalists who oppose its continued operation.
On Jan. 22, 2014, an underground section of the pipeline broke and spilled crude oil and natural gas liquids into the Straits of Mackinac, linking Lakes Huron and Michigan. That spill exposed the possibility that the corrosive waters could be contaminated by aging pipelines.
A public process begun in early 2017 resulted in an agreement by Enbridge that required it to permanently remove what it called “essential infrastructure” from the Straits area within two years.
It includes three other pipelines — Blue Water Pipeline Line, Line 3 Pipeline and Line 6B Pipeline — that run under the Straits. The other pipelines remain in operation.
After Lansing-based the “Great Lakes Coalition” filed a lawsuit seeking to force the state to require the pipeline’s removal, Enbridge sued to stop the suit in federal court.
The fight centered on whether Michigan’s interpretation of a federal law regarding pipeline relocation was allowed under the auspices of the Clean Water Act.
The law states that a “reasonable length of pipeline” is required in order to “construct, operate or reconstruct” a structure on an environmentally sensitive site.
Despite Lodge’s ruling against Enbridge’s arguments, Enbridge said it was committed to preserving Line 5. On Sept. 5, it filed a $13.9 million bond to secure a 50-year lease with the National Park Service, which will oversee the overhaul of the pipeline and storage area along the straits.
The settlement filed Monday will allow the Michigan Court of Claims to determine what “essential infrastructure” must be removed from the Straits of Mackinac, and then set the penalty.
Under a 1992 law, Michigan can impose criminal penalties of up to $10 million against any person who violates the environmental protection law — including the U.S. EPA and EPA’s sister agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Snyder also can impose a civil penalty of up to $1 million on Enbridge’s liability under the Clean Water Act, and collect an additional $1 million from the company through penalties paid by U.S. oil refineries and other facilities.