Mike Ludwig talks to Whitney Gravelle, an attorney for the Bay Mills Indian Community, about the fight against Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline.
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.
Mike Ludwig: Welcome to Climate Front Lines, the podcast exploring the people and places on the front lines of the climate crisis. My name is Mike Ludwig. I’m a reporter for Truthout.org. President-elect Joe Biden announced this week that former environmental protection agency administrator Gina McCarthy will serve as his top climate advisor.
The actions from environmentalists have been mixed to say the least on one hand McCarthy was the EPA administrator during the Obama administration. When regulators attempted to put caps on the energy sector’s greenhouse gas emissions for the first time, of course, the Trump administration crushed all these efforts and then some, and on the other hand, McCarthy was EPA administrator during the Obama administration.
When the word fracking became a household term for years, fracking opponents accused the EPA under Obama and McCarthy of suppressing research. Showing that fracking for oil and gas is a threat to drinking water. Still fracking caused an explosion of fossil fuel production across the U.S., and Canada was pushing to export more oil and gas at the same time.
All of these fossil fuels needed places to go in ways to get there and suddenly fights against new oil and gas pipelines erupted across the nation. The Keystone XL pipeline, for example, became a political hot potato under president Obama as tribal governments and environmental activists launched fierce campaigns against the project.
During the last days of the Obama administration. Law enforcement moved to crush the uprising at standing rock where the standing rock, Sioux tribe and other indigenous led activists resisted the Dakota access pipeline for months and drew international attention to the legacy of colonialism in the Americas.
Activists continue to take direct action to stop oil and gas pipelines under President Trump, who made it clear that the fossil fuel industry had a friend in the White House. Those days are coming to an end, the campaigns to prevent the industry from establishing new infrastructure and locking in decades of fossil fuel production will continue under president Biden.
Like other struggles on the front lines of climate change, many of these campaigns are led by indigenous activists. One such campaign can be found in Northern Michigan where the Canadian firm Enbridge wants to extend the life of line five to underwater oil and gas pipelines that have operated for decades in the straits of Mackinac, the narrow body of water between Michigan’s lower and upper peninsula. In 2018, a ship’s anchor struck line five causing damage and alarming the public lion five runs under what it’s essentially headwaters for much of the great lakes and oil spill in this region could spell disaster for ecosystems and fresh water supplies. Enbridge wants to build a quote unquote tunnel over line five so the pipelines can continue operating for years to come. But the company is facing opposition from a coalition of tribal governments, along with Michigan’s democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer. To learn more, I spoke with Whitney Gravelle, an attorney for the Bay Mills Indian community, a Northern Michigan tribe that has fished the waters flowing above Line 5 for generations.
Whitney Gravelle: So Bay Mills Indian community is a federally recognized Indian tribe located in the upper peninsula of Michigan. So we’re in the Northern most part of the state. Um, and as I mentioned earlier, uh, closer to Canada than the rest of the state, but we have been here since time immemorial.
So this is where the Aboriginal people of the Bay Mills Indian community, Ojibwe Anishinaabe, have always resided and lived and been a part of the environment and culture here within the state of Michigan.
ML: Can you give us a little bit of background on the Enbridge line five? Um, how much construction has been completed, maybe where you all are at, in the permitting process?
WG: Yeah. So Enbridge line five, the dual pipelines that run beneath the straits of Mackinac have actually been in existence since 1953. That is when Enbridge first saw an easement from the state of Michigan and actually placed the pipelines into the water. Since then in early 2018, there was actually an anchor strike that struck the pipelines in caused some severe damage.
And that was the first time that the tribes or the public in the state of Michigan were actually made aware of the pipelines. So they had been around, you know, for almost 60 years and all of a sudden, everyone was made aware of what was actually going on beneath the water. Uh, Which was really surprising, not only to the tribe, but to the public.
And then it started raising all of these concerns of why did we have an oil and natural gas pipeline running through the straits of Mackinac, running through the Great Lakes, which is the largest freshwater body in the world. And a critical part of not only the environment of the state of Michigan, but also our economy up here.
ML: Right, and I was watching the video you sent me, that fishing is a big part of the economy where, where you live or for your community.
WG: Yes, that is correct. So Bay mills is actually a signatory of the 1836 treaty of Washington. And in that treaty, there were five different tribes. Females included that seeded 14 million acres to the United States government for the creation of the state of Michigan.
If we had not signed that treaty back in 1836, uh, the state of Michigan would not have. Um, become part of the union, essentially during that time, what we did when we signed the treaty of Washington, however, is we reserved rights on reservation and offers a ration to fish hunt and gather throughout the seed and territory, which is essentially that 14 million acres, that 14 million acres also includes the waters of the great lakes.
And in reserving the. The right to fish in the great lakes, what our ancestors were doing was actually preserving a way of life for our people. That is something that we have always done commercially as well as subsistently in order to provide and feed our community.
ML: And you mentioned earlier, other pipelines, have you drawn inspiration or, uh, maybe some tactical knowledge just from seeing other indigenous led fights against pipelines in the U S.
WG: Absolutely. Um, you know, the most. The largest example that comes to mind was the No DAPL that took place in the Dakotas against that pipeline. That was the first time that the, the indigenous community had come together and rallied around one another in order to stop a pipeline. And there were a lot of atrocities that occurred in the no dapple protest, but they ultimately succeeded.
Now that pipeline is still in litigation. Uh, over there in the Dakotas, they’re still figuring out what those issues, but the strength that those indigenous communities found amongst each other. We also had citizens from the mills Indian community that went out to the Dakotas to support them. We had donations coming from our own tribal community.
It made us realize that if we could draw upon the same strength that we might be able to then get line five, the dual pipelines out of the straits of Mackinac.
ML: And they’re there. Enbridge is trying to extend these lines, right? That is what you’re fighting right now.
WG: Yeah. So originally this has actually been a really rapid and moving process here in the state of Michigan, but originally in 2018, when those anchor strikes had occurred, that.
As I mentioned brought awareness to the general public and the state of Michigan of the dangers of these pipelines. Uh, what Enbridge started doing then was coming up with other alternatives in a way to keep the pipeline going underneath the streets of Mackinaw and what the mills Indian community is actively fighting right now is a proposed tunnel project.
So essentially Enbridge wants to build a tunnel beneath the straits of Mackinac that would then house these dual pipelines, still keeping them. You know, underneath the water, underneath the soil, but endangering our Great Lakes.
ML: Right. And as, um, and as a community, I imagine there, isn’t just the sense of you.
You want to preserve and protect the water for fishing and, uh, for the area that you live, but you’re also fighting to protect the entire great lakes system, really that, that flows from that area. And also the climate.
WG: Absolutely. You know, you hear the term often that tribal communities are often the first stewards of the environment, the first stewards of the land, and that is an obligation and a duty that our communities and the different indigenous populations take very seriously.
We actually have a teaching amongst our people. It’s called the seven generations teaching. But what it asks you to do is to look seven generations into the future for every action that you take. So whether it be a pipeline or driving a car, you know, or constructing something or polluting or recycling, you are supposed to examine that decision that you do and determine how.
Are the actions that I am taking today, having an impact on my children’s children and their children, seven generations into the future. And that teaching is so ingrained into our society. That what it really. Has us do and requires of us is to reflect upon the impacts that we are doing towards the future, which is a direct correlation to climate change, you know, to global warming, uh, to being a steward for the environment.
What are we doing today that will provide the most sustainable future for our children?
ML: And where are we with the fight? I know that. Enbridge filed a lawsuit recently. I think it was against governor. Whitmer correct for, um, attempting to block the pipeline. And then there’s also some permits that are in the air.
WG: Yeah. So most recently, just a few weeks ago, Governor Whitmer actually revoked the easement for the dual pipelines in the streets and Makena first, the governor and the attorney general filed litigation on the easements. In state court, state of Michigan court, and then Enbridge responded by filing an action in federal court, essentially stating that the governor has no right to revoke the easement and that federal regulations over pipelines actually preempt any state law that may apply in terms of easement or regulation of water and lands.
Uh, dual and running along that there’s actually a litigation taking place before the Michigan public service commission, which females is directly involved in. And the Michigan public service commission is the governing body that will decide whether or not Enbridge can move the duel. Pipelines in the streets of Mackinaw into the tunnel.
Also running adjacent to that is there are two permits that are going before Eagle, which is a state regulatory agency in Michigan and also the United States army Corps of engineers to actually build and construct the tunnel. So first and bridge must receive permission from the Michigan public service commission to place the pipelines into the tunnel.
And then they also need two permits approved by both the army Corps and Eagle in order to build the tunnel.
ML: And so, and those permits are, um, the decisions on those are going to be made next month I read. Is that correct? So you’re kind of like, this is a crucial time for your campaign.
WG: Yes, um, Eagle the environment, great lakes and energy division actually extended the deadline until January, 2021.
And then the army Corps is also evaluating that permit. Their process is a little bit longer, but they typically run very parallel to one another. So once we just see a decision from the Eagle state side, we will also see a decision come from the army Corps as well.
ML: One thing we’ve seen internationally. In the past few years is climate negotiators of the United nations and other intergovernmental organizations that are working on climate have come to recognize the leadership that indigenous people have in, in the movement for climate justice. And also in the effort to just preserve the planet, um, that indigenous knowledge, not just the United States, but across the world can be a guiding.
For us in determining how to preserve land, to manage forests, to create carbon sinks, um, to do these things that can help us mitigate at least some of the impacts of climate change. Do you feel like when you’re, when you’re opposing this pipeline, that that does have climate implications, that you are part of a bigger movement and international recognition of, the, I guess, indigenous knowledge about land and about the areas that need to be preserved.
WG: Not at this moment in time. And I think that it is because our focus is so narrowed and lasered-in on the issues that we’re confronting here on the ground, in the state of Michigan. Um, but definitely the inspiration that we have seen from other indigenous communities, not only within the United States, but around the globe.
Have lent us strength in the, in the battles that we are engaging here on the front lines, we learn from their mistakes. We learn from their achievements. We learn from them as communities and how they engage their state or federal regulatory agencies. And we try to apply that here because I think as a people and looking at the teachings from indigenous communities, we’re all aligned that we’re here.
Uh, again, you know, reflecting upon that seven generation principle to continue to provide for our communities who have bet on this land since the beginning of time.
ML: Thanks for listening to Climate Front Lines. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, give us a like, and a share. You can also sign up for our free daily email [email protected] Stay safe out there, friends.