Line 5 pipeline: How did we get here and what it means for Canada

Click to play video: 'Enbridge defies Michigan order, plans to continue operating Line 5'
Enbridge defies Michigan order, plans to continue operating Line 5
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer gave Enbridge until May 12 to turn off the taps to the pipeline that runs through the Straits of Mackinac, and is now threatening financial penalties against the company for failing to follow her order. Tom Vernon reports – May 12, 2021

The battle over Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline was in the spotlight Wednesday as the deadline Michigan’s governor gave the company to shut down came and went.

Calgary-based Enbridge has been locked in a long-running battle with Michigan over the cross-border pipeline. Concerns about the pipeline’s condition and its potential environmental dangers have been brewing for years, but there is division over whether shutting it down completely is the right move economically.

Click to play video: 'Enbridge keeps Line 5 pipeline flowing, defying Michigan deadline'
Enbridge keeps Line 5 pipeline flowing, defying Michigan deadline

Here’s a summary of what’s happened so far and what could be next.

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Pipeline battle

The pipeline was built in 1953 and is part of Enbridge’s “Lakehead” network of pipelines that snake around the Great Lakes.

Line 5 carries up to 540,000 barrels per day of fossil fuel products from Superior, Wisc., to Sarnia, Ont., and is considered a vital link in Enbridge’s export network.

It delivers more than half of the crude oil used in Ontario and 66 per cent of what gets consumed in Quebec, and provides vital home heating oil and propane throughout Michigan and Ohio.

The dispute first erupted last November, when Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer cancelled a decades-old legal authorization and gave Enbridge until May 12, 2021, to cease operations.

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Whitmer cited a review by the state’s Department of Natural Resources in her decision, which found that Enbridge had repeatedly violated terms of the easement. Whitmer pointed to the risk of an environmental catastrophe in the Straits of Mackinac, the waterway where Line 5 connects Lake Michigan with Lake Huron.

Enbridge has so far been defiant.

The company insists the pipeline is safe and has vowed to continue to keep the pipeline operational anyway. Bolstering their insistence of its safety is a state-approved $500-million effort to dig a tunnel beneath the straits — rather than leave it exposed on the lakebed — that the company says would house the line’s twin pipes and protect them from anchor strikes. The permitting process for that project is still underway.

The company said on Monday that it will not stop operating the pipeline “unless we are ordered by a court or our regulator to do so, which we view as highly unlikely.”

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Whitmer originally gave Enbridge until May 12 to shut down the pipeline. With no signs of that happening at time of writing, the second round of court-ordered mediation is up next. The two sides are scheduled to meet again on May 18, though it’s not clear whether anything will happen before then.

Environmental concerns

Officials in Michigan and environmentalists alike are increasingly alarmed by the pipeline’s advanced age. Reports over the years indicate Line 5 is showing signs of wear and tear, raising doubts about its safety.

The Straits of Mackinac — where the underground tunnel project is proposed — are considered a particularly environmentally sensitive area. A rupture or leak would wreak havoc with the ecology of Lakes Michigan and Huron. The Straits have a complex current system — currents change direction often and erode the lakebed, making it difficult to determine how far oil would travel if a spill occurred in the area.

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One analysis predicts that 700 miles of shoreline would be at risk for contamination or exposure to oil if there was a spill.

Click to play video: 'Enbridge to ignore Line 5 shutdown order, pipeline opponents vow to fight on'
Enbridge to ignore Line 5 shutdown order, pipeline opponents vow to fight on

A 2017 report by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) showed Line 5 had spilled 1.1 million gallons of oil in 29 incidents since 1968. The data, obtained by NWF through a freedom of information request, indicated that many of the incidents were related to construction mishaps. Others were due to defects in the pipe, like stress cracking along a seam.

More recently, Enbridge found the pipeline suffered damage in 2019, caused by some of its own ships. The company was also fined in June 2020 for failing to repair dents and cracks in its Lakehead System.

The company says on its website that “environmental considerations” are integrated into its business, but activists say otherwise. A number of Indigenous groups in Ontario back Whitmer’s shutdown efforts, as does Green Party Leader Annamie Paul.

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“Should anything that’s being transported in these 67-year-old pipelines get into the Great Lakes, it would have devastating effects and irreparable consequences,” Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Glen Hare said in a statement.

Click to play video: 'Trudeau defends timing of formal opposition to Line 5 pipeline shutdown demand'
Trudeau defends timing of formal opposition to Line 5 pipeline shutdown demand

Shut down and impacts

Many, including the Canadian government, say Line 5 comprises a vital source of North America’s energy infrastructure, and that cutting it off would be disastrous for both countries.

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There has been little disagreement over the importance of the pipeline, even across federal party lines. Canada’s federal government Tuesday argued in a U.S. court filing that shutting down the pipeline would deal a “massive and potentially permanent blow” to Canada’s economy and energy security, and risk lasting damage to U.S.-Canada relations.

Supporters of the pipeline claim a shutdown would cause gasoline shortages and price spikes, and force hundreds to thousands more rail cars and tanker trucks carrying dangerous products on railways and highways throughout Canada and the U.S. Midwest.

Line 5 delivers more than half the propane and home heating oil consumed in Michigan and is a vital source of energy for Ohio and Pennsylvania.

In Canada, the operation supports 5,000 direct jobs in Sarnia and some 23,000 adjacent jobs throughout the region in both countries. Its closure could also have devastating fallout for oil patch workers in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

The impacts would be “astronomical” for Sarnia and its economy, said Scott Archer, a business agent with UA Local 663, the pipefitters union in Sarnia.

“This town would essentially dry up and blow away,” he told Global News. “It’s the backbone of our infrastructure in this province and Quebec, and it’s fed by Alberta, so it’s going to just crush everybody.”

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Click to play video: 'Battle brews over fate of Enbridge Line 5 pipeline'
Battle brews over fate of Enbridge Line 5 pipeline

What's next?

Gov. Whitmer threatened in a letter to Enbridge on Tuesday to go after the company’s future profits if it defies her order to shut the pipeline down.

The company responded by repeating its intention to defy her demand.

Enbridge argues that the state has no authority to order the shutdown because the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration oversees interstate pipelines.

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Although a U.S. district judge has ordered mediation, the latest developments suggest the two sides may remain deeply entrenched.

Canada’s brief urged further efforts to reach a settlement.

Workers in Sarnia question how it’s gotten to this point without a resolution.

“As opposed to debating whether or not we should shut down Line 5, we should be debating whether or not we should upgrade our pipeline system,” said James Williamson, a UA 663 union member and pipefitter in Sarnia.

“That needs to be pushed to the front.”

In the meantime, the uncertainty leaves Williamson and his colleagues with “angst.”

“Everybody’s nervous and watching the clock,” he said.

“Are we all going to be packing up and moving, or are we going to be looking for new career paths, or a new job?”

— with files from Global News’ Sean Boynton and David Akin, the Canadian Press and Reuters

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