An icy crust on the Straits of Mackinac is melting into slush atop a shimmering, narrow waterway prized for its beauty and its role in supporting the local economy.

Snaking along the bottom of the heavily trafficked Straits, which connect Lake Huron to Lake Michigan, is a four-mile section of an oil and gas pipeline known as Line 5 at the center of a debate about whether it belongs there at all.

The fight over Line 5 in both Michigan and Wisconsin, where another section of the pipeline crosses the Bad River Reservation, could have sweeping implications for the power of states to regulate fossil fuels, for tribal sovereignty and for U.S.-Canada relations. Some or all of these issues are bound to surface in the upcoming presidential election.

Both Wisconsin and Michigan are battleground states. And in either place the debate over Line 5 could complicate election-year politics, particularly as candidates compete to eke out any advantage with voters they can find, whether on environmental issues, fossil fuel reliance or jobs.

The politics of Line 5 can get tangled. In Michigan, for example, unions and environmental groups, both reliably left-leaning constituents, are split on the pipeline. Organized labor supports it for the jobs and economic benefits it brings. But environmentalists in Michigan as well as Wisconsin next door want to shut down Line 5 because of the potential for spills.

Each day the pipeline, which is owned by Enbridge, a Canadian energy company, carries 540,000 barrels of crude oil and natural gas liquids through Wisconsin and Michigan before ending in Ontario and supplying refineries and production plants across the region.

While the big campaign issues in Michigan include the auto industry’s shift to electric vehicles, as opposed to Line 5, the pipeline controversy could be increasingly difficult for candidates to avoid. More than two dozen tribal nations in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, all of which are crisscrossed by Enbridge pipelines, have signed an open letter to President Biden asking his administration to get involved. They say that the federal government’s continued silence on Line 5 would “eviscerate” all tribal nations’ ability to protect their land and resources.

On Mr. Biden’s visit to Michigan and Wisconsin this month, he didn’t bring up Line 5, though his administration has pledged to carry out a thorough environmental review of the project. That review is due in 2026.

At the same time, federal lawsuits are also brewing in both Michigan and Wisconsin, which are far from a lock for either presidential candidate.

In Michigan, Attorney General Dana Nessel has sued to decommission the four-mile stretch of Line 5 that lies beneath the Straits, calling the pipeline “a ticking time bomb in the heart of the Great Lakes.” And in Wisconsin, the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa has filed suit in federal court arguing that Enbridge is trespassing on its reservation. A federal judge agreed, fining Enbridge $5.1 million and ordering it to reroute the pipeline within three years.

The company has appealed the ruling. This month, Department of Justice officials signaled in court that they planned to submit a brief in the case in April.

While the court fights continue, Enbridge has proposed what it says are solutions in both states. In Michigan, Enbridge wants to build a concrete tunnel hundreds of feet below the lake bed that would encase a new section of Line 5. Late last year, the Michigan Public Service Commission approved the plan. And in Wisconsin, a federal court has ordered Enbridge to reroute the pipeline off tribal land.

“Enbridge remains focused on building the Great Lakes Tunnel which will make a safe pipeline safer and protect the waters of the Great Lakes, the environment, and people while assuring long-term energy security and reliability and supporting Michigan jobs and the economy,” Enbridge said in an emailed statement to The New York Times after the Michigan appellate arguments last week.

Both of Enbridge’s solutions have been criticized by environmentalists, who say they aren’t foolproof.

In Wisconsin, Bad River officials say the company’s plan would still leave their drinking water and Lake Superior vulnerable should a spill occur. The Environmental Protection Agency has also raised concerns about the proposed reroute with the Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for issuing permits, citing “substantial and unacceptable adverse impacts” to the Bad River watershed.

Oil and pipeline projects have proven to be difficult political terrain for Mr. Biden, who campaigned on pledges to cut American reliance on fossil fuels in order to rein in climate change.

Early on, the Biden administration canceled a major permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. But it didn’t take action to stop an Enbridge expansion on another pipeline, Line 3, in Minnesota, and defended the Army Corps of Engineers’ decision to grant necessary permits, angering climate activists who cited Mr. Biden’s campaign pledges. The Biden administration also supported the $8 billion Willow oil drilling project on federal land in Alaska.

Former President Donald J. Trump, Mr. Biden’s presumptive Republican rival for the White House in the November presidential election, took steps to speed up construction of pipelines and other oil projects while he was in office.

In their letter to Mr. Biden, tribal officials asked his administration to end “the United States’ silence on this issue” and weigh in on the merits of Enbridge’s claim that a 1977 treaty with Canada gives Enbridge an indefinite right to pump oil through Line 5, across tribal lands.

The Canadian government is a major supporter of Enbridge and has filed briefs supporting it on both federal lawsuits. In a statement, the Canadian government said, “Keeping Line 5 open and operating safely is essential to the economies of the United States and Canada.”

“I would not expect the U.S. government to stiff-arm one of their closest allies and say that a treaty that our two countries made no longer applies,” said Mike Fernandez, a senior vice president at Enbridge.

In Michigan, fossil fuels are an important part of the economy. The state has the second-largest number of natural gas storage fields, after Pennsylvania. More than three-fourths of Michigan households use natural gas as their primary source of home heating, and it is one of the highest residential natural-gas users, per customer, in the country.

In addition to union support for the pipeline, many in the business community back its continued operation. “A lot of people cloak their opposition in how they want to protect the Great Lakes and really want to get rid of fossil fuels,” said Jim Holcomb, president of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. “If it went away, it would be detrimental to Michigan’s economy.”

Groups like the Sierra Club cite the potential for damage from possible oil spills from Line 5, particularly the risks to the Great Lakes.

In 2010, a different Enbridge pipeline spilled more than one million gallons of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River near Marshall, Mich. A National Transportation Safety Board report found that “pervasive organizational failures at Enbridge” led to the spill, citing, among other things, the rupture going undetected for more than 17 hours, during which time staff continued to pump oil through the broken line.

After that spill, Enbridge entered a consent decree with the E.P.A. that required more inspections of existing Enbridge lines in Michigan, including Line 5. One such inspection of Line 5 found warping, corrosion and sediment loss that the agency said had left the pipelines unsupported under the Straits.

A report ordered by Michigan officials in 2017 determined that the greatest risk of a rupture or spill was from an anchor strike, a foreshadowing of an anchor strike that actually happened in 2018. Line 5, which splits into two pipelines under the Straits, was dented so badly that Enbridge applied a sleeve to cover the damaged portion.

As a candidate for governor of Michigan in 2018, Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat and Biden ally, campaigned on promises to hold Enbridge accountable. While in office, she has pushed an agenda aimed at fighting climate change, toughening clean energy standards for companies and adding more protections for the Great Lakes, among other programs.

She issued an executive order revoking Enbridge’s easement in the Straits in 2019. But Enbridge kept on pumping and filed its own lawsuit against the state, saying the 47-year-old treaty between the United States and Canada gave it a right to operate uninterrupted. The suit is pending in federal court.

In the rural area along the Straits, where birch and cedar trees line single-lane highways and the next bend in the road might offer a glimpse of shimmering blue lake waters stretching to the horizon, the fate of Line 5 is weighing on residents.

Whitney Gravelle, President of the Bay Mills Indian Community, has worked to shut down Line 5 for years. She said the Straits were part of the tribe’s treaty-ceded territory, which gives the community unlimited hunting and fishing rights. If a spill were to happen, it would infringe on those rights, she said. Also, she said the proposed site for the new tunnel would harm cultural sites and places used for religious ceremonies.

“When you’re cutting ties to the landscape, it is almost like this destruction of a part of your identity,” she said.

“Our economy is based on the lakes,” said Desiree Allan, a bartender at a place called Johnnie’s on 2, which, with its wood paneling and Christmas lights, is among the only establishments open after dinner hours during offseason in St. Ignace, Mich., a tourist town of about 2,500 people on the edge of the Straits of Mackinac. “If anything were to happen, it would devastate the area,” she said.

But concern about the risks wasn’t universal. Greg Tamlyn, dining with a friend at the end of the bar, said Enbridge’s plan for a protective tunnel was a reasonable solution to avoiding a spill in the Straits. He called it nothing more than “just a construction project.”


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Credit: NYTimes.com

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