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‘Tofino-Scale Timing’ as Ottawa Invokes 1977 Treaty to Keep Line 5 Pipeline Open

Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau has invoked the dispute resolution mechanism in a 1977 treaty in a bid to keep the 68-year-old Line 5 pipeline operating through a critical chokepoint along the Great Lakes, prompting concern about the risk to a unique freshwater resource and the implications for Canada’s greenhouse gas reduction plan.

Garneau’s announcement Monday is the latest move in a years-long controversy that has Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel battling to shut the pipeline down, while Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. and its federal and provincial government allies campaign to keep it open.

“For more than 65 years, Line 5 has been the safest way to transport Canadian hydrocarbons from western Canada to central Canada, helping provide energy that is essential for heating homes and powering Canada’s economy,” Garneau said in a statement Monday. “Line 5 is governed by the provisions of the 1977 Agreement between the Government of Canada and the Government of the United States of America Concerning Transit Pipelines, which guarantees the uninterrupted transit of light crude oil and natural gas liquids between the two countries. Today, Canada is formally invoking the dispute settlement provision of the 1977 Agreement to ensure its full application.”

“I’ve been saying it for months,” Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan tweeted in response. “We will be there for Canadians.”

Ottawa has long threatened to invoke the treaty, its first use since it was adopted. But Garneau’s announcement showed a knack for Tofino-scale timing, landing just days after a ship’s anchor was identified as the suspected cause of a devastating pipeline spill off the California coast. Ship damage has been a persistent problem for Line 5, and preventing anchor strikes has been one of the lead rationales for the $500-million protective tunnel Enbridge wants to build for the pipeline.

Monday’s announcement “follows a breakdown in court-ordered mediation talks last month between Enbridge Inc. and Michigan,” where Whitmer “has ordered Line 5 to cease shipping petroleum along the bottom of the state’s Straits of Mackinac waterway, citing the risk of spills,” the Globe and Mail writes. The matter has been in the courts and in mediation for months, but “on September 15, Michigan told the court it saw no further use for mediation talks with Enbridge.”

While Canadian news coverage suggests a continuing effort to pull the U.S. federal government into the controversy, the Biden administration has been staying out of it so far. Last May, Energy Secretary and former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm said the case would be up to the courts to settle.

CBC says the 540,000-barrel-per-day Line 5 carries nearly half of Ontario’s and Quebec’s fuel supply, and U.S. news coverage has raised concerns about heating fuel supplies for residents of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

But Michelle Woodhouse, water program manager at Environmental Defence Canada, said it’s “a lie” that Line 5 has been operating safely. The line has lost at least 4.5 million litres of oil, including a 200,000-gallon/750,000-litre spill at Crystal Falls, MI in 1999 that burned for 36 hours and forced 500 people to evacuate, she told The Energy Mix.

The pipeline “runs through the heart of the largest freshwater body in the world,” Woodhouse said. “There is no number you can put on the value of the Great Lakes because we depend on them for every single aspect of our lives in this region. So keeping a deteriorating pipeline in operation is very unsettling.”

Canada is going to bat for Enbridge’s “corporate interests and financial interests,” even though “we know we need to stop expanding fossil fuel projects immediately,” she said. “Pipelines fail. Pipelines harm water bodies all the time. And there is absolutely no good reason to put the Great Lakes at risk.”

Woodhouse added that oil demand in Canada and the U.S. has “essentially remained flat and stagnant” for the last decade, so that Canada now produces 2.5 times as much oil as it consumes.

“When they claim the sky is going to fall and we’re going to have a domestic energy crisis if Line 5 shuts down, without also taking into account what’s happening with production and consumption, you have to question whether it’s about protecting the energy security of the region or protecting [Enbridge’s] long-term portfolio for investors,” she told The Mix. That agenda persists, she added, despite analysis this year from the International Energy Agency and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calling for rapid fossil fuel production cuts to get the global climate emergency under control.

As for Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Woodhouse cited a 2018 study [pdf] for the U.S. National Wildlife Federation, produced by Boston-based London Economics International, that looked into alternative supply options for the region if Line 5 closes. If alternative supplies had to be carried by truck and rail, the study concluded, retail gasoline prices in Michigan would rise by less than 1¢ per gallon, an increase that “would be lost in the noise of typical weekly gasoline price volatility”.

The firm’s lead consultant on the project did not reply to a request for any updates since the research was published.

While propane is currently a commonly-used heating fuel in the Upper Peninsula, Woodhouse said the state government under Whitmer—who’s up for re-election next year—has been moving swiftly to electrify the region and shore up the power grid. While she had no information on any building retrofit initiatives in the area that could reduce propane demand while combatting energy poverty, she said the London Economics study shows that “we actually do have enough capacity without the existing pipeline infrastructure to meet most of our energy needs” across the Great Lakes region. “So that’s key.”

4 Comments (Open | Close)

4 Comments To "‘Tofino-Scale Timing’ as Ottawa Invokes 1977 Treaty to Keep Line 5 Pipeline Open"

#1 Comment By Margaret Holm On October 6, 2021 @ 11:03 AM

An honest question from a climate activist–assuming we need some oil supply and a few pipelines (not expansion projects) to continue, is Line 5 needed?

#2 Comment By Mitchell Beer On October 6, 2021 @ 1:24 PM

Thanks, Margaret. Anyone else, *please* chime in, but here’s what I’ve heard so far:
* Product from Line 5 can be replaced via truck and rail — according to the 2018 London Economics study, at an extra cost of about 1¢ per gallon in the U.S.
* Look no farther than Lac Mégantic for evidence that rail lines (and by extension, highways) are not the ideal way to transport fossil fuels.
* But expanding Line 5 now would give a 68-year-old pipeline up to another 99 years of operating life when we know fossil fuel extraction has to be scaled back quickly, and mostly or completely phased out by 2050. The International Energy Agency’s latest projection, from May 2050, found that a 1.5°C pathway requires 75% less oil production and 55% less natural gas by that year, and multiple analyses have shown how that pace of change is both necessary and achievable.
* I’ve seen no analysis of how much energy efficiency or renewable electricity a company like Enbridge (or a government in Michigan or Ontario) could buy or leverage by taking the $500 million the company wants to spend on the Line 5 tunnel and investing it in deep energy retrofits. Analysis in Canada says a mass, deep retrofit program could fix up most homes and commercial buildings across the country by 2035, virtually wipe out energy poverty, and create a tonne of jobs.
* That doesn’t answer the immediate question of how the Upper Peninsula (or the fuel tanks at Pearson Airport) would get through the next winter if Line 5 shut down tomorrow. But if the goal and the imperative is to use less, and we have to choose our gamble in the meantime, the *right* policy debate would begin with how quickly we can relieve end users’ dependence on Line 5, and whether pipeline, rail, or road is the least bad interim choice. Through that lens, my guess is that the option would be anything *but* the pipeline.

#3 Comment By Heather Dunlop On October 6, 2021 @ 10:06 PM

Why do we never hear about the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) in the news when this subject is brought up? It “is an agreement between Canada and the United States, first signed in 1972. It contributes to the quality of life of millions of Canadians by identifying shared priorities and coordinating actions to restore and protect the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes.”

#4 Comment By Mitchell Beer On October 8, 2021 @ 8:18 AM

That is *such* a great point, Heather, thank you. We’ll ask around about this the next time we report on Line 5.