Enbridge's Line 5 Pipeline: What It Is and Why You Should Care

Sunday, September 27

By Ella Shively

Cover photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash.

When I first visited Ashland, Wisconsin in September of 2016, the trees were aflame with the colors of the north: smoky gold, blaze orange, vibrant red. As I drove down Highway 2 toward town, the land opened up, and suddenly a vast, sultry expanse of water unfolded before me, overhung with purple clouds. Lake Superior. I had not expected the lake to appear so human.

Ashland has been my home for the last three years as I’ve pursued my bachelor’s degree at Northland College. Ashland is a rural community of approximately 8000 at the head of Lake Superior’s Chequamegon Bay, located near the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest and the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. For centuries, this area has been the homeland of the Anishinaabe people.

Ashland isn’t on most people’s radar: when I explain where I go to school, there’s usually some degree of gesturing involved. But living in Ashland has given me a front-row seat to events of national and even global importance transpiring in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Canada. 

In 1953, a company called Enbridge built a pipeline that passes through Ashland County. This Canadian-owned pipeline–Line 5–is part of an enormous network that transports fossil fuels from Alberta, Canada, through the United States, to oil refineries in Ontario (in conjunction with Line 3). On its shortcut back to Canada, Line 5 passes underneath the environmentally-sensitive Straits of Mackinac. It also cuts through the Bad River Reservation, just east of Ashland, and threatens the treaty rights of the many Anishinaabe people who live along its path.


In 2019, the Bad River tribe filed a federal lawsuit against Enbridge to remove Line 5 due to fears of an oil spill. The easements required to keep the pipeline on the tribe’s land expired in 2013, yet seven years later, Enbridge is still transporting fossil fuels across the reservation.

Enbridge has recently begun permitting to reroute the pipeline around the reservation–yet under the new proposed route, an oil spill would still impact the Bad River watershed. In June, Line 5 was temporarily shut down in the Straits of Mackinac when a judge ruled the company had not proven it was safe enough to resume operations. Throughout its history, Enbridge has spilled over a million gallons of oil from Line 5 alone. It’s only a matter of time before disaster strikes again.

Enough is enough. Rerouting Line 5 is little more than a symbolic gesture; it must be decommissioned altogether. This is not just a local issue. Whether you live in Ashland or San Francisco, this pipeline has serious impacts for the entire nation, and even the world. Below, I highlight a few of the most pressing concerns: climate change, environmental degradation, and environmental racism.

Climate Change and Environmental Degradation

If you live anywhere in the world and care about our warming planet, then this issue is for you. Enbridge’s permit applications to the Wisconsin DNR account for the construction of the new section of pipeline, but not the effects of its end products. Line 5 transports oil and natural gas liquids, dirty fuels that contribute to climate change. Enbridge has already started to branch out into renewable energy sources, yet it still clings to dirty fuels and a pipeline that will soon be defunct. Decommissioning the pipeline will force Enbridge to put more investment into renewables and shut down a major source of fossil fuels.

In addition to the havoc wreaked by climate change, the construction of the new pipeline segment and the possibility of an oil spill pose serious threats to the environment. The proposed reroute will require 186 waterway crossings and 109 acres of temporary wetland filling. And just to reiterate, Enbridge has spilled over a million gallons of oil from Line 5 alone. An oil spill, especially in the Straits of Mackinac, could severely impact both human and ecological communities throughout the Great Lakes region.


Environmental Racism

Enbridge continued to operate on the Bad River Reservation for seven years after their easements expired. The level of disrespect Enbridge has directed toward the Bad River Tribe is absurd. Enbridge’s action to relocate the pipeline around the reservation does nothing to protect the tribe’s land from a potential oil spill, which would still flow into the Bad River watershed. A spill could be devastating to the many Anishinaabe people who live along the pipeline’s path, another violation of treaty rights in the United States’ long history of treaty violations. Additionally, climate change and environmental degradation pose unique threats to Indigenous peoples worldwide. Shutting down Line 5 would set a precedent for more honorable treatment of Indigenous peoples in the United States and around the world.

“Tribal members depend on clean, healthy, and abundant natural resources to meet our physical, social, cultural, economic, and spiritual needs...Oil production, transportation, and use continues to be a major driver of climate change. Climate change is particularly challenging for our people because we are place-based and depend on plants and animals which thrive in our upper Great Lakes environment,” stated Michael Isham, executive administrator of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, during the Wisconsin DNR hearing on July 1st, 2020.


A post shared by Aubrey (@looptyhoop) on


If I were to document every danger this pipeline poses, this article would be thousands of words long. There are numerous other complaints about Line 5, ranging from financial instability to eminent domain abuse. 

It’s important to note that Line 5 is not an isolated pipeline–Enbridge has pipelines all over the U.S. and Canada. One of those pipelines is Line 3, which carries fossil fuels to Line 5 and passes through Anishinaabe ceded territory in Minnesota. Indigenous activism has been at the forefront of the opposition to both pipelines. Honor the Earth, an organization dedicated to Native environmental issues and directed by renowned writer and environmentalist Winona LaDuke, has boldly led the fight against Line 3. 

The era of fossil fuels is coming to an end, and we look now to a brighter, cleaner future. It's time to decommission Lines 3 and 5. To learn more about how to stand up for clean water and Great Lakes communities, visit the following websites:

Oil and Water Don't Mix

Stop Line 3


Subscribe to our Newsletter & Never Miss a Post!