The Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians in northern Wisconsin voted not to renew an easement for a major oil and gas pipeline that passes through its reservation.
In the wake of the successful protest against the Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota, this decision is the latest example of Native American tribes using sovereignty rights to oppose fossil fuel projects.
The pipeline in question, Line 5, spans 645 miles and is owned by Canadian pipeline giant Enbridge. It is used to ship as much as 540,000 barrels of fossil fuels, including crude oil and propane, per day from Superior, Wisc. to Sarnia, Ontario and is part of Canada’s largest export oil pipeline network. The resolution passed by the tribe calls for the decommissioning and removal of the pipeline from all Bad River lands and its watershed, which flows into Lake Superior.
Robert Blanchard, chairman of the Bad River band said the 64-year-old pipeline is “an accident waiting to happen.” A spill from the pipeline could affect land and water that the tribal members rely on for hunting, fishing, and gathering wild rice, Blanchard said.
“If something were to happen, no matter how big or how small, it’s going to have an effect on us,” Blanchard said. “We figure that now is the time to do something about it.”
Easements granted to the pipeline company on 11 parcels of land owned by the tribe expired in 2013. The company said it had been working with the tribe since then to negotiate a renewal and Enbridge spokesperson Michael Barnes said the company was surprised by the tribe’s decision.
“In addition to working toward a mutually beneficial agreement, Enbridge also worked with the band’s cultural resources, natural resources, and legal departmental staff to maintain safe pipeline operations within the boundaries of the Reservation,” Barnes said in an email.
Tribal officials said they have not been negotiating with the pipeline company about the easements and vowed to ensure that the pipeline does not remain. “We will reach out to federal, state and local officials to evaluate how to remove Line 5,” Blanchard said in a statement.
The vote by the tribe comes amidst increasing concerns by Native Americans and environmentalists in Michigan. They who worry that Line 5 could contaminate the Great Lakes if it were to leak at the Straits of Mackinac where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron meet. Reps. Dave Trott (R-Mich.) and Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) introduced legislation on January 12 calling for a shutdown of the pipeline if a federal study finds it poses significant risk to the Great Lakes.
If the company and the tribe do not reach an agreement, the company may be forced to reroute the existing pipeline around the reservation or shut the pipeline down.
If the pipeline is rerouted, it wouldn’t be the first time that a Native American tribe succeeded in pushing a pipeline off its reservation. In 1995, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Montana fought and won a similar battle with Yellowstone Pipeline Co.
That pipeline leaked 10,000 gallons of gasoline in 1993, just as the 20-year permit to cross the Flathead Indian Reservation was up for renewal. When the tribes declined to renew the lease, the pipeline company had to use tanker cars to ship the fuel around the reservation, something it continues to do two decades later.
Similarly, the easement for a gasoline pipeline that passed through the town of Bellingham, Wash. had expired when the pipeline exploded in 1999, killing three people. As with tribal land, municipal land in Washington State cannot be taken through eminent domain.
“The Olympic Pipeline folks came to an agreement with the city that added in a whole lot more safety than what the federal government would have required, including different types of valves and different types of inspections,” said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit watchdog organization based in Bellingham.
The Grand Traverse band is challenging safety upgrades proposed for the Line 5 pipeline in Michigan, including a call for greater environmental scrutiny of the proposed work. Its legal objections are similar to arguments being used by the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota to halt Dakota Access.
“I think what has happened in Standing Rock has galvanized Indian country,” Rastetter said of the high-profile fight to stop the $3.8 billion pipeline.