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Youth Protest of Line 5 Pipeline

by Xanthe Saalmann - Sophomore Madison Country Day School - Editor of The Connection

On Thursday, April 14th, high schoolers took a stand against Line 5, a corroding oil and natural gas pipeline that fossil fuel company Enbridge plans to expand.

Every day, Line 5 pumps 22 million gallons of natural gas and crude oil through northern Wisconsin and Michigan. Enbridge has been running Line 5 since its creation in 1953, and over 1 million gallons of oil and natural gas (over 1.5 Olympic swimming pools!) have been spilled. Luckily, Line 5 has not detected any spills in vulnerable places yet, a fact that Enbridge proudly boasts on their website as though this means that Line 5 will never spill in the future. However, considering Enbridge’s plan to further expand Line 5, and Line 5’s corroding facade, the likelihood of a spill is only increasing.


Similar to many industrial projects, Line 5 disproportionately impacts Indigenous people. The Bad River Ojibwe people of northern Wisconsin are at risk of a Line 5 spill that could damage their waterways, and oil spills in the 12 mile stretch of Line 5 running through the reservation could even reach Lake Superior. Floods in the Bad River reservation in 2016 eroded much of Line 5’s support, exacerbating the risk of an oil spill that would damage the Bad River watershed.

In 2019, as tensions between the Bad River tribe and Enbridge increased, the Bad River tribe filed a lawsuit against Enbridge. In response, Enbridge plans to relocate 41 miles of Line 5 around the reservation. This relocation does not benefit the Bad River people; instead, it frees Enbridge from legal disputes over treaty rights while maintaining the risk of a spill that would contaminate Bad River drinking water and ecosystems.

Enbridge, of course, preaches of Line 5’s benefits. It states that Line 5 brings jobs to the community, thus helping their economy. What Enbridge ignores, however, is that industrial projects are often associated with a “boom-and-bust” economy; that is, it will bring employment and prosperity during the pipeline’s construction, but when the pipeline construction inevitably ends, many people will find themselves jobless with a pipeline that may subsequently bring costly spills.


A Line 5 spill in the Straits of Mackinac in northern Michigan would have particularly calamitous consequences. A spill would harm up to 47 species, and 100 square miles of unique habitats, including the endangered piping plovers and Beaver Island. The main concern, however, is in regards to the Great Lakes. The Straits of Mackinac connect Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, meaning that a spill here, although largely spilling into Lake Huron, could also contaminate Lake Michigan, harming both lakes at once. A spill in the Great Lakes means harming up to 84% of North America’s freshwater, and 21% of the world’s freshwater. Only 30% of the oil would be recovered, and these damage control efforts would cost $2 to $6 billion dollars.

Enbridge might argue that a spill in the Straits of Mackinac, or near the Bad River reservation, is highly unlikely, believing that this absolves any concerns regarding Line 5. What this fails to address, however, is that Line 5 is a pipeline, and like any other pipeline, it further entrenches the use of fossil fuels, one of the largest contributors to climate change. As fossil fuel companies like Enbridge continue to contribute to climate change, stopping Line 5 in any capacity is a step in the right direction.

As Sturgeon Moritz, a high school student who helped organize the Dane County Line 5 walkout, says, “This is more than just some squabble about pipes in the ground. This is a local issue with international significance. This is an environmental issue. This is a human rights issue. Line 5 has been hurting people and the planet for the past 55 years. Let’s not let it become 56.”


An Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is a government document discussing the environmental impact of an industrial project. Line 5’s draft Environmental Impact Statement (dEIS) is notably insufficient. It fails to consider treaty rights, and its authors did not consult with any affected tribes as they wrote this dEIS. Additionally, it does not sufficiently address the impact of an oil or natural gas spill from Line 5, including a spill’s impact on rare species. Finally, it fails to address the climate change impact of Line 5.

This is a draft Environmental Impact Statement, meaning that it can be changed. In fact, until April 15, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources was accepting public comments on Line 5’s dEIS. Public interest was so significant that they extended the deadline for public comments multiple times. Dane County students used the opportunity for public comment as a chance to take action against Line 5.


On Thursday, April 14, Dane County students organized walkouts across 5 high schools: Madison Country Day School, McFarland High School, Cambridge High School, Madison East High School and James Madison Memorial High School. The main goals of these walkouts were: to encourage our fellow students to send an email to the Wisconsin DNR denouncing Line 5’s dEIS, to express youth sentiment against Line 5, and to educate our peers on Line 5.

When youth are unable to vote, opportunities such as climate strikes are a wonderful way for us to demonstrate our opinions and beliefs on significant issues like climate change, which will significantly impact us– and will certainly impact us much more than it will impact Enbridge’s CEO.

Being able to speak up about an issue I am passionate about is truly empowering, as it was for other youth involved in the walkout. The feeling of standing in solidarity with your peers and friends about an issue as consequential as climate change is rejuvenating. For me, climate action sometimes feels pointless and stagnant. However, connecting with others and being able to see the impact of your actions–whether that’s seeing the crowd of students that shows up to the walkout, or noticing them sending an email to the WI DNR–restores hope and inspires me to continue pushing for climate action.


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