Court accepts amicus briefs supporting enforcement of State of Michigan public trust duties in Enbridge’s lawsuit
Jim Olson, President and Founder
By Jim Olson
The Michigan Court of Claims has issued orders accepting FLOW’s and the City of Mackinac Island’s amicus briefs advancing key legal arguments in Enbridge’s Line 5 oil tunnel lawsuit against the State, rejecting opposing arguments by the Canadian oil pipeline company.
The ruling in Lansing by Judge Michael Kelly in late September means that vital issues raised by FLOW’s brief and the city’s brief will be considered by the Michigan Court of Claims, including the public trust rights of citizens to draw drinking water from and otherwise use the Great Lakes, and the soils and bottomlands beneath them, unimpaired by private interests.
FLOW’s Amicus Curiae Brief was prepared and submitted by Great Lakes environmental and public trust law experts Jeff Hyman, senior staff attorney at the Conservation Law Center in Bloomington, Indiana, and FLOW’s president and legal advisor Jim Olson. The brief traces the history of the public trust doctrine in Michigan and demonstrates the failure of Enbridge and the State to make the determinations required for authorization of the occupancy and use of waters and soils beneath the Great Lake by a private corporation under public trust law and the Michigan’s Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act (GLSLA).
“This is an important step in restoring the rule of law on Line 5,” said FLOW executive director Liz Kirkwood. “The Great Lakes belong to all of us and cannot simply be handed over to a private corporation through a hurried backroom deal by a lame-duck legislature. If Enbridge really wants a tunnel, it will have to apply under state law and demonstrate no potential risk of adverse impacts and no other alternative pipelines to transport crude oil that avoids the Great Lakes.”
Background on Amicus Briefs
On Sept. 10, FLOW filed a motion to submit an amicus brief before the Court of Claims in Enbridge v. Michigan on important questions involving violations of the public trust doctrine. FLOW noted that the future of the public trust rights of citizens and communities in the Great Lakes were violated by the 2018 “lame duck” agreements that would have contracted away the legally required review of impacts of a tunnel pipeline to the Great Lakes, fishing, drinking water, health, and the economy imposed by the constitution and law of Michigan.
In Michigan, people, organizations, and communities have a right as beneficiaries of the public trust in the Great Lakes to demand that government apply the rule of law. Where this interest would be seriously affected by the questions presented in a pending lawsuit, citizens and local governments may motion the court to file an amicus curiae brief—“friend of the court” written arguments submitted to aid the court regarding the questions and how the law should be applied.
The City of Mackinac Island, meanwhile, filed a motion and amicus brief submitted by Traverse City environmental attorneys Scott Howard and Rebecca Millican. The arguments in the city’s brief pinpointed for the Court the grave consequences to the city’s drinking water source, emergency and health services, ferry services, and tourist economy, in addition to the wellbeing of guests and residents from the continued operation of the decaying Line 5 oil pipelines in the Straits. The city’s amicus brief focuses on the invalidity of the 2018 agreements between the State and Enbridge, which purported to grant Enbridge the right to continue using and occupying the waters and soils of the Great Lakes without any authorization under the public trust or GLSLA requirements.
FLOW’s position remains that the attempt by the Snyder administration to allow Enbridge to continue operating the existing perilous Line 5 in the Straits while Enbridge spends 5 to 10 years or more designing, obtaining required authorizations under public trust law and constructing a tunnel is not a solution. An oil pipeline tunnel 10 years or more down the road does not address Line 5’s immediate threat of massive harm to the Great Lakes nor address the risk posed by the pipeline’s more than 400 stream and river crossings in the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. In addition, Enbridge’s proposal to allow electrical lines and other infrastructure to occupy the proposed oil pipeline tunnel poses an explosion risk. Oral arguments in the case have not been scheduled, so stay tuned to FLOW’s website and Facebook for periodic updates. At stake are the integrity of the State of Michigan constitution, state law, public trust doctrine, and protection of the Great Lakes, public health, and the rights of its citizen to use their public waters.
Lame-Duck Disaster and Side Deals
In December 2018, at the 11th hour of his term, then-Governor Rick Snyder and his department heads of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ)—now Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE)—signed tunnel agreements by-passing the public trust doctrine and Great Lakes submerged lands law that expressly control agreements for private occupancy and use of the waters and bottomlands of the Great Lakes.
To expedite the tunnel deal before the end of the year, the Governor and Enbridge solicited the help of the lame duck legislature to push through Act 359. That tunnel law amended the Mackinac Bridge Authority’s enabling legislation and created a new authority called the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority to cede the state’s public trust bottomlands and waters to Canada’s Enbridge.
In late December, the state DNR and DEQ, along with the Corridor Authority signed a series of agreements, including an easement, that illegally assigned the use of the public trust soils under the Great Lakes to Enbridge to locate, build, and operate a new oil tunnel for Line 5 under the Straits.
Separately, but related, Governor Snyder, DNR, and DEQ entered into a “third agreement” that sought to assure Enbridge the right to continue indefinitely the use of the bottomlands of the Straits for the existing 66-year-old Line 5 oil pipelines. Polls and public testimony show that much of public agrees the cracked and sagging pipelines must be removed as soon as possible. With its failing design, Line 5 poses an unacceptable risk of catastrophic harm to fishing, navigation, drinking water, swimming, boating, health and emergency services, Tribal rights, the ecosystem, property values, municipal infrastructure, tourism, and even the steel industry. The attempt to assure Enbridge continued use of the existing Line 5 was unlawful and grossly serious breach of the State’s duty to protect the Great Lakes.
New Leaders Apply the Rule of Law to Line 5
In early January 2019, newly elected Governor Gretchen Whitmer exercised her executive authority under the state constitution, and requested Attorney General Dana Nessel to issue a formal legal opinion on the constitutionality of Act 359 and the validity of the series of the 2018 agreements purporting to turn over the Straits of Mackinac to Enbridge for its tunnel and to continue using the dangerous Line 5. On March 27, Attorney General Nessel ruled that Act 359 and these agreements were unconstitutional, invalid, and unenforceable.
In June, Enbridge filed suit in the Court of Claims in Lansing against the State of Michigan and its departments to resuscitate the oil tunnel deal by seeking a Court order that Act 359 and all of these agreements are constitutional and otherwise valid and enforceable. A.G. Nessel and her staff responded with a motion to dismiss Enbridge’s claim because the law and related agreements are unconstitutional and violate the public trust in the waters of the Great Lakes and the soils beneath them. Enbridge responded that the law was within the powers of the legislature, and that the agreements complied with the public trust doctrine.
Underlying Legal Framework
Under the public trust doctrine, the state owns the bottomlands and waters of the Great Lakes in a trust for the protection of these waters, bottomlands, fish, habitat, and for fishing, navigation, drinking water and sanitation, boating, swimming, and other recreational pursuits. The doctrine prohibits the disposition or agreement for occupancy and use of public trust bottomlands by a private person or corporation without an express determination that the disposition falls within one of two narrow exceptions:
- The purpose will improve a public trust interest or use—the water, habitat, fish, or one of the protected public uses (such as a public harbor for boating, or public drinking water works, or swimming beach); or
- There is no unacceptable risk of impairment to the waters, ecosystem, or these protected public trust uses.
In 1955, Michigan passed the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act (GLSLA) to protect the public waters and lands beneath the Great Lakes. Under the GLSLA, no one can use, alter, occupy or control the soils and waters of the Great Lakes, unless authorized by the DEQ (now EGLE) after due findings that the public trust interests (e.g. navigation, fishing, drinking water) would be improved or would not be impaired.
When Governor Snyder and his department heads cut the tunnel deal with Enbridge, they contracted away these legal requirements, basically suspending the rule of law in Michigan.
You might say our leaders suspended the law and granted Enbridge an “open season” license to do what it wanted with the public’s paramount trust interests in the Straits of Mackinac. The Governor, DNR, and then-DEQ failed to require Enbridge to apply for legal authorization to continue using the existing Line or the proposed Tunnel under public trust law or the GLSLA.
As of this writing, there has been no such authorization from the State of Michigan allowing Enbridge to own, control, use, or occupy the public soils and waters of the Straits. And FLOW, the city of Mackinac Island, tribes, and citizens of Michigan aim to keep it that way.