A Bad Week for Democracy in Michigan

A Bad Week for Democracy in Michigan

You probably won’t hear about it much in the news, given recent events in the national political arena, but two very bad regulatory decisions were made here in Michigan this week that ought to alarm you. Both of them could significantly weaken local authority—like efforts to protect sensitive natural resources— in matters involving energy infrastructure.

If you’re a fellow Line 6b landowner, you may be apt to experience a disturbing flashback, as I did. So brace yourself. You might recall that one of the prolonged controversies during the “replacement” had to do with the question of whether Enbridge was required to comply with local ordinances or obtain local consent for their work as stipulated by the Michigan constitution. I wrote about this on a number of occasions. Well, this week, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling on a very similar question. In effect, the decisions says that the Michigan Public Service Commission (you remember them, right), comprised of political appointees who are in no way accountable to voters, can preempt ordinances passed by democratically elected local officials.

Here’s the story: over in Oshtemo Township near Kalamazoo, a utility company called the Michigan Electric Transmission Company (METC) wanted to install a new electrical transmission line. In keeping with practices by now all-too-familiar, the company failed to communicate openly with local officials—despite repeated requests from township officials—and provided the township with very little information about the project, including about things as basic as routing. Unable to obtain precise information from METC and undertandably concerned about its natural resources, the township then passed an ordinance requiring the transmission line to be buried underground where it passes through the village. METC ignored this ordinance and applied for a certificate from the MPSC anyway.

On the question of the compliance with the ordinance, the Administrative Law Judge in the case sided with Oshtemo Township. The MPSC, however, disagreed with the ALJ and insisted that their own decision effectively overrode the authority of the Oshtemo ordinance. Here is what the MPSC said:

The Staff argues that the purpose of the Oshtemo ordinance was to usurp Commission authority and create an obstacle to the construction of the project. The Staff reiterates its opposition to enforcement and further disagrees with the ALJ’s recommendation that the Commission condition the CPCN on a requirement that METC underground a portion of its line as required by the ordinance.

Note that the Commission’s primary concern is with its own “authority,” not the will of the people (of Osthemo Township), the legitimacy of statutes passed by democratically elected officials, nor the protection of the township’s natural resources. Sound familiar?

So this week, the Michigan Supreme Court heard the township’s appeal on this matter (which was supported, it’s worth noting, by the Michigan Townships Association, which certainly understood the stakes of the matter) and sided with the MPSC. What that means is that a few—and I mean literally a few: THREE, to be precise—unelected, industry-friendly regulators who, history shows, have very little interest in actually regulating the behaviors and actions of large companies like METC (and Enbridge and Energy Transfer) or in protecting the citizens they are ostensibly appointed to serve get to dictate energy and right-of-way policy over and above the actions of elected officials in every single community across the state. You tell me who’s doing the usurping here.

Of course, it’s also the case that not every decision made by a duly elected legislative body is a good one. In fact, the Michigan legislature seems to excel and making abominable decisions. Which brings me to the second bad news of the week. The state House of Representatives just passed HB 4205, which is unoffically called the “no stricter than federal” bill. The bill’s foolish idea—and believe me, I know this sounds absurd— is to prohibit state regulatory agencies from making any rules that are stricter than already existing federal regulations. This is transparently idiotic, since federal regulations, weak and ineffectual as they tend to be, do not account for local conditions. How could they? Yet Michigan state legislators want to make it harder, not easier, for state-specific regulations—regulations that might help protect the state’s thousands of miles of coastline, its freshwater resources—to be enacted. It’s as if no Republican member of the state House (no Democrats voted for the bill) has ever heard of, say, Flint. Or petcoke.

What’s worse is that the House already tried this— six years ago. But back then even Governor Snyder thought it was a bad idea and vetoed the bill. Yet here it is again. I have already written to my representative, Joe Graves, expressing my great disappointment in his vote for this terrible legislation. And I’ll be writing to my state senator and the Governor as well. I encourage you to do the same.

Looking Back and Looking Ahead

Looking Back and Looking Ahead

We’re back! We’ve got a spiffy new look, a new mission (details below), and starting right now in this very sentence I’m even dropping, for good, the rhetorical first person plural. Yep, things have changed during the eighteen or so months this blog has been dormant.

Among those changes, in case you haven’t heard, is that Line 6B is evidently no longer Line 6B. With no real explanation, Enbridge recently decided to start calling it Line 78. It’s not altogether clear why, though I suspect they saw this in part as an opportunity for some re-branding—you know, on account of the spotty reputation of Line 6B— maybe even a continuation of their project to obscure the history they love to say, sometimes with creepy tokens, they’ll never forget. But just because they’ve chosen a new name doesn’t mean we have to use it— no more than we have to comply with their misleading, ahistorical insistence that “oil sands” is the “accurate” term for the filthy stuff dug up from the ground in Alberta and flowing through the pipeline in my backyard as I type this. So you can rest assured that I plan on keeping the name “Line 6B Citizens’ Blog.”

But that doesn’t mean nothing around here is changing. After all, for most Line 6B landowners, the long, torturous construction saga known as the Line 6B “replacement” project ended almost two years ago— and with it ended some of the urgent necessity of this blog. It’s been a while since Enbridge finally packed up its monstrous tree-eating machines, its backhoes, its welding rigs, and its pack of scurrilous, lying land agents and headed north so it could commence destroying properties, suing municipalities, and buying off politicians in Minnesota and Wisconsin. All of which they are doing, of course, aided and abetted by the Department of Justice, which turned what should have been a sharp rebuke and deterrent to Enbridge’s standard operating procedures into a rather large gift. So as long as Enbridge continues to get its way, why change its behavior?

Not all the news of the past eighteen months has been bad, though. The movement to shut down Line 5, those two rickety old pipes traversing the Straits of Mackinac, has grown beyond what anyone ever could have expected. More and more citizens, members of the business community, clergy, and even some (unlikely) politicians have begun to take seriously the dangers that aging line poses to the world’s largest source of fresh water. Another positive development is the courageous action taken by the Bad River Band of of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa in Wisconsin. In order to protect the sensitive natural resources that sustain the tribe’s fishing and hunting lifeways, the Bad River tribal council voted not to renew Enbridge’s lease to operate Line 5 on tribal land. And there has been good news from Minnesota as well, where, thanks to a lawsuit filed by our friends at the Friends of the Headwaters, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that Enbridge must complete a full Environmental Impact Statement for its proposed pipeline expansions (one of which appears to be dead).

Developments like these hardly seemed possible when I started this blog in 2012. Grass roots movements against pipelines in the U.S., with one major exception, didn’t occupy anywhere near the space in public consciousness they inhabit today (which isn’t to say that nothing was brewing five years ago). Save for some talented reporters at a scrappy upstart online newspaper, Line 6B certainly wasn’t on many people’s radar, as my wife and I learned to our deep dismay when we tried to contact Michigan elected officials about the “replacement project.” Nor had many people heard of Line 5, Pegasus, the Alberta Clipper, Line 3, Dakota Access, Nexus, ET Rover, Northeast Energy Direct. LNG, or Trans Mountain— not to mention PHMSA and FERC.

The movements to resist each of these projects originated in local, even hyperlocal, concerns— call it NIMBYism if you want. But another change is that these movements are no longer so confined. They now form distinct nodes in a transnational network of efforts to exert local autonomy and authority against the onslaught of an energy infrastructure development beast running completely amok, virtually unconstrained by the state and federal agencies charged with protecting the public interest. Even more broadly, these movements have come to represent some of the most important and most visible sites of citizen action in response to the urgencies of climate change and the energy future.

A good deal of credit for this shift in public awareness about the relationship between local concerns like property rights and global concerns like climate change, forged by bringing fossil fuel transport aboveground (so to speak), is due to Bold Nebraska and the alliances they formed—between cowboys and Indians, ranchers and climate activists—to fight against Keystone XL. More recently, similar movements led by indigenous peoples like the Standing Rock Sioux water protectors in North Dakota have helped bring to light some further historical and ethical dimensions of this nexus, like the legacy of settler colonialism and important questions about climate justice, since indigenous and other poor populations will suffer most from the effects of climate change.

Admittedly, all of these matters weren’t foremost in my mind when I started this blog. The pain of witnessing the destruction of my property and a desire to see my neighbors and other property owners treated fairly motivated my efforts. The generosity and vast knowledge provided by the Pipeline Safety Trust aided those efforts immeasurably while also expanding my understanding of pipeline politics beyond my homefront. From there, my academic training led me to seek out not just resources for dealing with pipeline issues but also contexts and intellectual frameworks within which to understand and think through the broader social, political, and historical dimensions of what was happening in my backyard and the backyards of my neighbors. Those contexts and frameworks, inspired by the writings, conversations, friendships, and exchanges I’ve had with with scholars, activists, advocates, artists, ordinary citizens, and even members of the fossil fuel industry—will form the basis of the reinvented (and reinvigorated) Line 6B Citizens’ Blog.

In the academic world, scholars of literature (like me), history, anthropology, philosophy, political science and other fields who are bringing their disciplinary training to bear upon the cultural implications of our long love affair with (or addiction to?) hydrocarbons, climate change, ecology, environmental justice, energy policy, the nonhuman world, and more have created a broad, loosely defined field of study known as the Environmental Humanities. The kind of inquiry that animates the Environmental Humanities, almost by definition, takes up ethical questions, matters of public policy, and subjects of pressing real-world concern. For that reason, many EH scholars are eager for opportunities to engage with audiences and publics outside of the (sometimes too narrow) academic sphere—something I learned when I collaborated with my Oakland University colleagues to organize a climate change symposium at our campus. It’s my hope that the new Line 6B Citizens’ Blog can provide an ongoing forum for this kind of public engagement and, even better, for building a community comprised of groups of people that don’t always get the chance to communicate with one another.

All of this means I’ll mostly feature other voices on this blog from now on. I’ve asked some of the smartest and most interesting thinkers I know— many, but not all, of them Environmental Humanities scholars— to help keep this blog alive.  And I hope to recruit others as well. Of course, I promise I won’t stop reporting on Enbridge. Nor will I cease to do whatever I can to help protect landowners and the environment from their latest shenanigans. But I’m also eager to let others have this platform for a while to explore issues that extend beyond (but also extend very much from) what has happened with Enbridge here in Michigan. I hope, loyal readers, that you’ll stick around. We all have much to learn from one another.

We’re going to kick things off with a brand new series centered upon a theme near and dear to all of us along Line 6B: “Backyards.” That series will launch very soon—and I am very excited about it. Please stay tuned.

Enbridge Community Meetings

Enbridge Community Meetings

As many of you know, postcards from Enbridge have been arriving in the mail this week announcing a “Community Meeting.” In fact, Enbridge is (has been) holding a number of these meetings around the region this spring (details below). Understandably, this has people wondering and wary as to what Enbridge might be up to now. We’ve received queries from a number of people and also heard rumors of various sorts. So we just wanted to take a minute to set the record straight about these meetings.

You may recall that last summer, Enbridge finally reached a settlement with the Department of Justice for the Marshall spill. At that time, we expressed our deep disappointment in that settlement, which is shockingly favorable to Enbridge’s interest. In our view, it amounts to a reward, in fact, rather than a punishment.

At any rate, among the many directives in the Consent Decree outlining the details of the settlement (which you can read here) is a requirement that Enbridge perform “Community Outreach.” Here is what the decree says:

In addition to the above exercises, Enbridge shall conduct or hire a contractor to conduct Community Outreach sessions regarding the hazards of the different oils in the Lakehead System and the location of Enbridge pipelines in the community and how such pipelines are marked. Specifically, within one year of the Effective Date, and for each year thereafter until the Decree is terminated, Enbridge shall hold at least 15 Community Outreach Sessions in 15 different communities where the Lakehead System is located. Enbridge shall also provide information at the Community Outreach sessions regarding: (i) how the community should respond in the event of a spill, (ii) how the community can obtain information in the event of a spill from Enbridge and government agencies, and (iii) how the community can report spills to Enbridge, EPA, and the National Response Center. (116.e., p. 115)

So these meetings are nothing more than informational sessions to comply with the DoJ order. They are apt to be rather boring– though you can be sure that we’ll be attending to find out. If nothing else, it will be interesting to see whether Enbridge has anything to say about “the hazards of the different oils in the Lakehead System” or whether they’ll just try to tell us once again how much the products they transport enhance our lives.

Here are the remaining meetings (a couple of others have already been held), with dates, times, and locations. Registration appears to be required.

Stockbridge, MI 
Tue, May 9, 2017
Community Outreach Session: 6:00 pm
Heritage Elementary School
222 Western Ave,
Stockbridge, MI 49285
Clarkston, MI

Wed, May 10, 2017
Community Outreach Session: 6:00 pm
Deer Lake Athletic Club
6167 White Lake Rd,
Village of Clarkston, MI 48346

Port Huron, MI 
Thu, May 11, 2017
Community Outreach Session: 6:00 pm
McMorran Place
701 McMorran Blvd.
Port Huron , MI 48060

One final word: we know the blog has been dormant for a while as we’ve been attending to other things. But we’re planning a comeback– or more precisely, a reinvention. Please stay tuned for the relaunch coming very soon!