President Joe Biden has spent the past two years trying to sidestep pipeline politics. But a recent decision from Michigan promises to thrust the issue back onto the presidential campaign trail.
The Michigan Public Service Commission last week approved a plan to encase a 70-year-old pipeline in an underground tunnel beneath the Great Lakes. Now, advocates are turning to the Biden administration in hopes of closing the pipeline known as Line 5 — presenting the president with a swing-state dilemma that cuts across his climate and economic agendas.
“This is an election issue,” said Ashley Rudzinski, climate and environment program director at the Michigan-based Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities.
Although Line 5 faces other hurdles, environmental advocates see Biden as one of their best avenues to block the pipeline. The project still needs a federal permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, whose environmental review is expected to stretch into 2025 — giving opponents and supporters a chance to press their case during the 2024 campaign.
“People will be watching to see if [Biden] takes action,” said Rudzinski, who is also co-director of the Great Lakes Business Network. “We’ve certainly been applying a lot of pressure through our channels.”
Line 5 already has emerged as a top issue in Michigan’s last two gubernatorial races. Tribal leaders, climate hawks and environmental justice advocates warn that a leak from the pipeline could devastate the Great Lakes’ environment and economy, while also arguing it’s a step backward on climate action.
Pipeline developer Enbridge has responded with ad campaigns touting Line 5 as safe. Republicans are defending Line 5 as a lifeline of affordable energy — especially propane — to the Upper Peninsula; they’ve argued shutting it down would cause energy prices to spike. And the pipeline has drawn support from some labor unions that see it as a source of jobs.
That mirrors the political trade-off that Biden has faced with other pipelines. He campaigned in 2020 against the Keystone XL pipeline, and he revoked its permit on his first day in office — cheering progressives, angering some unions and offering Republicans a way to tie Biden to rising energy prices.
Since then, Biden mostly has declined to make overt moves against other high-profile pipeline projects, such as the Dakota Access pipeline or the Mountain Valley pipeline. And he has approved some major fossil fuel projects, like ConocoPhillip’s Willow project in Alaska.
Biden so far has declined to wade into the Line 5 issue. His administration in 2021 studied the potential economic impact of shuttering the pipeline, but the White House denied it considered a shutdown. “That is something that we’re not going to do,” White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said at the time.
The Biden campaign referred questions to the White House, which did not respond to a request for comment.
Former President Donald Trump, the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, has supported pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure. In 2019 he signed an executive order aimed at curtailing states’ ability to block pipeline development.
Line 5 moves about 23 million gallons of oil and gas products daily between the United States and Canada. Its two parallel pipelines cross the Straits of Mackinac, the waterway connecting Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. In 2018 an anchor strike damaged the pipeline; no fossil fuels were released, but the incident pushed Michigan’s then-Gov. Rick Snyder (R) and pipeline operator Enbridge to agree on a plan to encase Line 5 in a protective tunnel.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), who won election in 2018 on a promise to shutter Line 5, has revoked the pipeline’s easement and ordered it shut down — an order that Enbridge has defied since 2021, while the company also fends off lawsuits from Michigan’s attorney general and a Native American tribe in Wisconsin.
Michigan Democrats have taken a hard line against Enbridge’s pipeline due to the company’s checkered history in the state. In 2010, Enbridge’s Line 6B pipeline ruptured and released more than a million gallons of diluted bitumen into the Kalamazoo River. It became one of the worst inland oil spills in U.S. history — and critics of Line 5 worry a repeat in the Great Lakes would be exponentially worse.
Despite Whitmer’s opposition to Line 5, her appointees on the Michigan Public Service Commission voted 2-0 to approve Enbridge’s planned tunnel beneath the Straits of Mackinac. (One commissioner did not vote.) The commissioners found the plan to be the safest way to move petroleum products into Michigan.
“Without the pipeline’s operation, suppliers would need to use higher-risk and costlier alternative fuel supply sources and transportation for Michigan customers, including those who use propane for home heating,” the commission said in a statement announcing the tunnel’s approval.
Enbridge cheered the decision, noting it was the last approval it needed from Michigan. “The permit from the MPSC is key to building this engineering marvel and continuing to deliver to Michiganders the energy on which they have come to depend on from Line 5,” Mike Fernandez, Enbridge’s senior vice president of public affairs, communications and sustainability, said in a statement.
Outraged climate and environmental justice advocates are vowing to make it impossible for Biden’s reelection campaign to ignore Line 5.
Tribal advocates say Native American voters are already closely following the pipeline’s developments. Every federally recognized tribe in Michigan has passed resolutions opposing Line 5, according to Bridge Michigan.
“We’ll have a Standing Rock right here in Michigan,” said Andrea Pierce, founder of the Michigan Democratic Party’s Anishinaabek Caucus, which advocates on issues affecting the state’s tribes. The Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North and South Dakota was the center of large, monthslong protests against the Dakota Access pipeline.
Line 5 opponents thought they’d already done their job by electing Whitmer, Pierce said, only for Enbridge to defy her shutdown order and for her appointees to approve the pipeline’s continued existence.
“We’re asking Biden to shut that shit down,” said Pierce, who is a member of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. “If they’ve been evicted, why do they still get to profit off us?”
Biden was already facing political turbulence in Michigan over his handling of Israel’s war in Gaza. Michigan has one of the highest shares of Muslim Americans in the country, and many have opposed Biden’s steadfast support for Israel. The threat to Biden’s reelection prospects are serious enough that Michigan Democratic leaders have warned the White House that Biden is at risk of losing the state.
In Line 5, Biden faces the prospect of losing support among Native American voters, too.
“We were told last election that all roads to the White House go through Indian Country,” Pierce said, before ticking off the Dakota Access pipeline, Line 5 and other fossil fuel projects that Biden has allowed to proceed.
“The way I see it, he’s doing everything he can not to win,” she said. “Because I don’t know any natives that are interested in [working] for him unless he stands up and starts protecting our lands and our [waters].”