By CRAIG MAUGER
Michigan Campaign Finance Network
LANSING (Sept. 6, 2019) — Enbridge, the company that owns the Line 5 oil pipeline that runs beneath the Straits of Mackinac, was a top sponsor last month of a gathering of county officials from across Michigan.
In the weeks before the event, the Michigan Association of Counties described Enbridge as a “partner” in putting on the association's annual conference. At the conference, the company’s pipeline became part of the proceedings.
County officials voted to adopt a pro-Line 5 amendment to the Michigan Association of Counties’ policy platform. The amendment supported a much-debated proposal to construct a tunnel in order to keep the pipeline in the Straits.
Enbridge’s recent work with the Michigan Association of Counties comes amid a larger push to benefit the pipeline, a pipeline environmentalists see as a threat to the Great Lakes but others see as crucial to Michigan’s access to energy. The push has included a bevy of full-page newspaper advertisements, increased lobbying and a county-by-county effort to gather support for a pipeline Michigan’s attorney general is trying to shut down.
Dickinson County Commissioner Joe Stevens was one of the county officials who backed the amendment to the Michigan Association of Counties' policy platform last month. Association members approved the proposal in a voice vote. Asked if he was concerned about the appearance of county officials backing a measure that benefits Enbridge at a conference sponsored in part by Enbridge, Stevens said no.
“If there was a problem, there would have been some objections,” Stevens argued. He added, at another point during an interview, “This is an issue that would catastrophically affect the U.P. (Upper Peninsula) if Line 5 closed down.”
According to Enbridge, Line 5 delivers 65 percent of the propane used in the U.P.
But multiple county officials said they weren’t even aware the convention vote was going to take place on Aug. 20 and therefore, weren’t in attendance at the time of the vote to voice their objections (Clarification: A Michigan Association of Counties spokesperson said notification of the proposed amendment proposal was provided to members via email and online days before the vote took place).
“I think it’s very concerning,” Jason Morgan, a Washtenaw County commissioner, said of the way the vote played out.
Likewise, Betsy Coffia, a Grand Traverse County commissioner, has said she doesn't understand why it's locally elected commissioners’ jobs to advocate for positions that benefit a “Canadian oil giant’s bottom line.”
On the campaign trail in 2018, both Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel vowed to close Line 5 if they were elected. Enbridge has been fighting that outcome and working to protect its pipeline, through which up to 540,000 barrels of light crude oil, light synthetic crude oil and natural gas liquids travel per day, according to the company.
In a “key messages” document provided to one county commissioner through email this year, an Enbridge lobbyist said, “There are no other options for replacing the volume of light crude oil delivered through Line 5.”
Before Whitmer and Nessel took office at the start of 2019, state lawmakers approved a bill to keep Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac and build a tunnel for it. Nessel’s office later declared the law unconstitutional, a finding Enbridge is challenging in court.
Also, Nessel’s office has filed a lawsuit to decommission Line 5 because of “the significant risk of a catastrophic spill from an anchor strike or operational failure.”
Since the start of 2018, Enbridge has paid about $63,000 for sponsorships and advertisements with the Michigan Association of Counties, according to a voluntary disclosure made by the association. Derek Melot, a spokesperson for the association, said the the group has received support from Enbridge for years.
According to data from the association, the money it’s received from Enbridge since the start of 2018 equals about 5 percent of the revenue from its sponsorship and marketing programs over that time.
"These partnerships allow us to limit the costs on our members to attend events and stay abreast of policy changes at the state and national levels," Melot said in a statement.
The pro-Line 5 amendment that was voted on during the August convention came from commissioners from the Upper Peninsula and was prepared in accordance with Michigan Association of Counties bylaws, Melot added.
The Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN) filed a series of Freedom of Information Act requests to determine why so many individual counties across the state were supporting similar resolutions on the future of Enbridge’s Line 5. Through those requests, MCFN obtained an email in which Deena Bosworth, director of governmental affairs for the Michigan Association of Counties, sent Stevens language for the pro-Line 5 amendment to the association’s platform.
“Here is some language I put together,” she wrote on July 25. “I hope this works for you. You will have to propose this amendment, I cannot.”
About a month later, the membership of the Michigan Association of Counties membership approved similar language for its official policy platform.
Stevens said the idea for the amendment initially came from discussions among county commissioners from the Upper Peninsula who were concerned about the impact the pipeline’s closure would have on their access to propane. Those discussions led commissioners to reach out to employees of the Michigan Association of Counties for help crafting a possible amendment
As for Enbridge, spokesperson Ryan Duffy said the company is continually looking for opportunities to provide information to local, county and state governments about its operations, Line 5 and the tunnel project.
“We appreciate county governments expressing their support,” he added.
Pro-Line 5 resolutions have also been gaining support from individual county commissions.
Dickinson County was among the first to do so in June 2019. The Dickinson County resolution said Enbridge had proposed to invest $500 million “to make a safe pipeline safer” and the economic consequences are too great for Line 5 to be shut down.
“The Dickinson County Board of Commissioners extends its support for Enbridge’s proposed tunnel replacement project and urges the State of Michigan to work with Enbridge to complete the tunnel project as quickly as possible and not disrupt Line 5 service before the tunnel can be completed,” the resolution added.
The Grand Traverse County Commission cited the Dickinson County resolution in its own resolution, which gained the commission’s approval in August. According to emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, Grand Traverse County commissioners had been discussing the resolution for weeks before the vote.
In one email, Commissioner Gordon LaPointe questioned the proposed resolution and asked, “Where did the language for this resolution come from?”
Environmental groups have also questioned the language of the resolutions that have been gaining support from county officials. Sean McBrearty, campaign organizer for Clean Water Action, called them “very inaccurate.”
“There have already been 33 spills from Line 5 since 1968,” he said. “It’s spilled in almost every section of the line except the Straits of Mackinac.”
But Enbridge has said that Line 5 hasn’t had an incident at the Straits of Mackinac in the more than 65 years it has been in operation there.
LaPointe eventually supported the resolution and there’s no sign anyone answered his question in emails about where the language came from. In a voicemail to MCFN, LaPointe, like others, said he suspects the resolution originated with counties in the Upper Peninsula and spread elsewhere.
In Oakland County, Commissioner Shelley Goodman Taub has been pushing her county to take a position in support of the Line 5 tunnel. According to documents received through FOIA, Goodman Taub has received information to back up her positions from a lobbyist for Enbridge, Deborah Muchmore.
In an email to Goodman Taub on July 31, Muchmore said “we have” a lobbying firm that works with Enbridge and “labor folks” working to get Democrats on the Oakland County Commission to support the resolution.
As of now, Oakland County hasn’t approved Taub’s resolution.
Supporters of the pipeline, including Goodman Taub, said their stance is not because of financial contributions to any organization but because of fears that shutting down the pipeline would limit access to propane. She said county-level efforts to support the pipeline are being led by Northern Michigan officials who would be most affected by the pipeline being shut down.
“They are scared to death that they are not going to have propane,” said Goodman Taub, a former president of the Michigan Association of Counties.
Davd Holtz, a member of the Sierra Club’s Michigan Chapter Executive Committee, said Enbridge has been spending “millions of dollars” to convince people Line 5 is “safe and vital.” Holtz argued that the pipeline is neither. He said the pipeline is an unreliable source of energy for the Upper Peninsula.
“It is having an impact,” Holtz said of Enbridge’s recent publicity effort. “The question is will they be able to fool most of the people most of the time.”
It’s impossible to tell how much Enbridge and groups opposing the pipeline have spent making their cases in recent months. However, Enbridge ran full-page newspaper advertisements in many of Michigan’s largest newspapers over the summer. It’s also run Facebook advertisements and radio advertisements. The ads have touted the company’s work to protect Michigan’s water.
In addition to the advertisements, Enbridge has increased its lobbying at the state level in Michigan. Over the first seven months of 2019, it reported spending $105,728 on lobbying. That’s more than it spent over an entire year in Michigan previously.
A handful of sources predicted that Enbridge is laying the groundwork for a new bill to either fix potential legal problems with the 2018 tunnel legislation or to protect Line 5 through some other means.
In an email, Ryan Duffy, a spokesperson for Enbridge, didn’t specifically address the question of the potential for a new proposal in the Legislature. Duffy said the previously proposed tunnel project will “provide much-needed construction jobs and opportunities for local restaurants, convenience stores and retailers.”
“Enbridge is committed to providing lasting benefits to our pipeline host communities through increased job opportunities, retail purchases, property tax payments and community investment partnerships,” Duffy added. “Our community investment partnerships support local stakeholders in programs and projects in the key areas of community, safety, and environmental protection. Being a good neighbor is very important to us. Last year Enbridge invested $509,000 dollars in communities in Michigan and $4.6 million nationwide.”