“Line 5” is a 30-inch crude oil pipeline owned and operated by the Canadian company Enbridge Energy that runs from Superior, Wisconsin to Sarnia, Ontario. At the Straits of Mackinac, between Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas, it splits into two smaller diameter lines that rest on the lakebed. The pipeline was built in 1953 and for most of its operating life (or so the story goes) it has, like so much of our infrastructure, remained largely invisible. But in 2010, another Enbridge pipeline, Line 6B, ruptured near Marshall, Michigan and spilled over a million gallons of diluted bitumen into the Kalalamazoo River. That catastrophe, the result of a cascade of corporate operational failures, placed Enbridge’s regional activities under scrutiny, bringing Line 5 into the public consciousness.

Over the past decade a grassroots movement composed of environmental organizations, tribal groups, climate activists, concerned citizens, and business leaders has burgeoned. So much so that today Line 5 is the source of a geopoltical standoff between the US and Canadian governments. What happened is that in 2020 Governor Gretchen Whitmer revoked Enbridge’s easement to operate the pipeline in the Straits. Enbridge defied the order and that matter is now pending before the Courts. But in 2021, the Canadian government intervened in the case by formally invoking a 1977 bilateral treaty between the United States and Canada prohibiting either nation from impeding the operation of an international pipeline.

So now the US State Department is in talks with Canada and opponents of Line 5 are placing increasing pressure on President Biden to step in. But the issue is still more complicated. Canada’s attempt to turn Line 5 into an international dispute between settler governments poses a serious threat to indigenous sovereignty. A federal judge in Wisconsin recently ruled that Enbridge is trespassing on the tribal land of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians by continuing to operate the pipeline despite expired easements.

In Michigan, the Executive Council of the Bay Mills Indian Community, located in the Upper Peninsula, last year took the extraordinary measure of voting to formally banish Enbridge from the Straits of Mackinac. The banishment invokes the 1836 Treaty of Washington, which in exchange for the cession of almost half the land that is now Michigan, granted the Anishinaabe people permanent fishing and hunting rights and the continuation of their relationship with the land and water. Oil & Water Don’t Mix is a collaborative community organization that has in many ways led the effort to protect the Great Lakes and indigenous treaty rights from the imminent dangers of a Line 5 oil spill.

A diverse coalition, its Steering Committee includes the Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority (a coalition of five local tribes) and a number of other NGOs and environmental justice groups. We envision this project as a broadening and widening of the scope and purview of OWDM’s work. That is, while the fight goes on, it’s worth asking what happens after the Line 5 issue is settled? How can we harness the power and energy of the coalition to explore ways to make “oil and water don’t mix” not just a slogan for a single issue but a core ethical imperative for Michigan’s transformation to a clean and just energy future? The Line 5 matter is not just about a pipeline; rather, it intersects with a host of other urgent historical, social, political, economic, and institutional problems. Most of all, the Line 5 movement is about values, social justice, and a habitable planet. For example, our governor has initiated an ambitious Healthy Climate Plan. But while policymakers and business leaders encourage investments in such ventures as increased electric vehicle production, it will be important to ensure those efforts don’t reproduce historical and ongoing injustices like those I’ve already described.

Our project thus seeks ways to tell stories about Michigan’s energy past and future that make visible the experiences, lifeways, values, and needs of communities harmed or left behind by energy production, distribution, and development in the region. In what ways and in what forums can we help educate decision-makers and the public about, say, indigenous sovereignty or the 1836 Treaty of Washington? What kinds of stories can we tell to help connect the interests of, for example, water-loving recreational sportsmen (and women) Up North with the water-deprived citizens downstate in Flint and Detroit? How can we make the lives and struggles of vulnerable communities central to public conversations about energy transition in our state?