With Michigan’s deadline to shut down the Line 5 pipeline just two days away, the state and Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. are telling different stories about whether the leaky, 68-year-old line will still be operating Thursday morning.
While Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s office continues to describe Line 5 as a “ticking time bomb” that must be shut down on schedule May 12, Enbridge Senior Vice-President Mike Fernandez believes the deadline will likely pass uneventfully.
“The reason I say that is because the matter right now is situated in a U.S. federal district court that has prompted both parties, that is the state and Enbridge, to work through a mediator,” Fernandez told CBC’s Power & Politics show last Thursday. “If the state took actions, they would be acting outside the standard of good faith that’s normally required in such mediation.”
The momentum against Whitmer’s November closure order has been building for weeks. A host of opinion-makers and media commentators have been speculating on the jobs that could be in jeopardy, the propane supplies that could be disrupted, even the jet fuel that might no longer be available to Pearson International Airport if the leaky, 68-year-old twinned pipeline is shut down.
Natural Resource Minister Seamus O’Regan has declared the matter “non-negotiable”. But Ambassador Kristen Hillman struck a rather calmer tone with Power & Politics last Thursday.
“It is not a threat to Canada’s national economic or energy security,” she told guest host David Common. “I think that it is an important dispute or disagreement that exists between Enbridge and the state of Michigan that needs to be taken very seriously. And we are taking it very seriously.”
She added that she expected the mediation, triggered by Enbridge’s federal court claim against the shutdown order, to produce a compromise between the parties. “We understand from the advice that we have received that there’s a good chance that the pipeline…will continue operating during the course of the litigation and mediation,” she said.
But last week, neither side was sounding terribly keen to avert an eleventh-hour confrontation.
Whitmer press secretary Bobby Leddy maintained the state expected Enbridge to obey the order and shut the pipeline down May 12. “As of that date, Enbridge’s continued operation of the Line 5 pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac would be unlawful,” he said in a statement. “The notice gave Enbridge 180 days to arrange for shutdown, and subsequent decommissioning, of the pipelines. That 180-day period expires on May 12.”
Leddy added that “these oil pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac are a ticking time bomb, and their continued presence violates the public trust and poses a grave threat to Michigan’s environment and economy.”
“We will not stop operating the pipeline unless we are ordered by a court or our regulator, which we view as highly unlikely,” countered Enbridge Executive VP Vern Yu. Michigan is arguing that the case belongs in state, not federal court, he added, and that question “is not likely to be resolved by May 12”.
“Ottawa says it believes that Enbridge would not be required to comply with the May 12 deadline because no court has confirmed the Governor’s order and both sides are still in mediation,” the Globe and Mail writes. Canada “is likely to intervene in the Line 5 court case on or before May 11,” the paper adds, citing two federal sources.
That position is not landing well with the Anishinabek Nation, with Grand Chief Glen Hare pointing to the “devastating” impact of a pipeline spill in the Straits of Mackinac.
“It is upsetting to see that the government of Canada will pick and choose which treaties to uphold based on convenience and profit,” he said in a statement. “Should anything that’s being transported in these -year-old pipelines get into the Great Lakes, it would have devastating effects and irreparable consequences.”
While Ottawa “is considering taking action under the 1977 Transit Pipelines Treaty with the United States that allows for the uninterrupted flow of energy between the two countries,” The Canadian Press explains, citing Hare’s statement, “it is willing to ignore the treaties Canada has signed with the 39 First Nations in Ontario that are represented by Anishinabek.”
But CP says Liberal, Conservative and New Democratic MPs all agreed that shutting down the pipeline would have serious impacts, during an emergency Commons debate last Thursday night. The news agency points to the crude oil and home heating fuels the line supplies in Ontario and Quebec and the estimated 5,000 direct and 23,000 indirect jobs it supports in the region, “to say nothing of oilpatch workers in Alberta and Saskatchewan.”
O’Regan told the Commons a Line 5 shutdown would lead to 800 more tanker cars and 2,000 more trucks carrying oil and gas through the two countries each day, “creating a higher risk of spillage and unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions—much of it in Michigan as trucks clog busy border crossings,” CP writes.
“The protection of the environment of the Great Lakes is of vital importance,” he said. “I don’t think anybody in the House disagrees with that.”
But O’Regan may have gone a bit overboard in his defence of a pipeline that raises serious flags with a former chair of the International Joint Commission. “The danger of a breach of this age-compromised pipeline spanning a major shipping lane in the world’s largest freshwater body increases with every passing day,” Lana Pollack wrote in a Toronto Star op-ed in late March.
Examination of Line 5 “shows thinning of the pipeline walls and a history of breaks in the lakebed anchors essential to keeping the pipeline tightly fixed to the lake bottom,” she added. And “a current jury-rigged system of bottomland attachments allows this bent and corroded pipeline to flex and float in ways it was never designed to tolerate—stresses that intensify the risk of a breach.”
Enbridge is proposing to address those risks with a $500-million underwater tunnel plan that independent analysts consider “riddled with hazards”.
None of which seemed to factor into O’Regan’s assessment of the pipeline. “The reality of the situation is that Line 5 is safe,” he told the House. “It’s been safe for 65 years, operating in the Straits of Mackinac without incident. And Enbridge is committed to making a safe line even safer.”