Quebec’s location and energy alternatives give it options if Line 5 closes: expert

This photo taken in October 2016 shows an aboveground section of Enbridge's Line 5 at the Mackinaw City, Mich., pump station. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has ordered the pipeline shut down because of concerns about a potential spill in the channel that connects Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. Enbridge is resisting the order with the support of Canadian officials who say Line 5 is essential to their economy. The disagreement comes months after U.S. President Joe Biden upset Canada by canceling the Keystone XL oil pipeline project. John Flesher/AP Photo

While political and business leaders across the country scramble to avoid a shutdown of Enbridge Inc.’s Line 5 pipeline, Quebec could be spared the most serious consequences if the oil stops flowing.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, backed by environmentalists and Indigenous groups, says the pipeline that runs under Lake Huron and Lake Michigan is vulnerable to a catastrophic spill. She ordered the critical piece of energy infrastructure closed by May 12.

Federal Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan said in a recent statement “Line 5 does not just affect one province or one region — it supports our entire country.”

The Canadian government has filed a brief in connection with the legal dispute between Michigan and Enbridge. The Canadian and U.S. chambers of commerce have also joined forces with their counterparts in Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin by filing a joint brief in court arguing against Whitmer’s bid to shut down the cross-border pipeline.

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“It remains the safest, most efficient way to transport fuel to refineries and markets and is a reliable source of energy for Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Ontario and Quebec,” O’Regan said, adding that close to half of Quebec’s fuel supply derives from that pipeline.

But Suncor’s refinery in Montreal and Valero’s refinery in Lévis, Que., south of Quebec City, say they have contingency plans in place. And Pierre-Olivier Pineau, chair in energy sector management at HEC business school in Montreal, says Quebecers wouldn’t be seriously impacted if Line 5 were to close.

“If there’s such a strong political reaction in Canada, it’s because to the contrary of Quebec, other provinces don’t have options,” Pineau said.

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

Shutting down Line 5, Pineau explained, would be like going back in time. In 2015, before Enbridge received the authorization to operate their pipeline in Quebec, Valero and Suncor received crude oil by boat, rail or from the pipeline between Portland, Maine, and Montreal.

If Line 5 is closed, then Quebec’s refineries could be served by those three other options, he said.

Suncor and Valero didn’t want to give details about where they would look to fill the gap left by Line 5. Marina Binotto, spokeswoman for Valero, says the location of Lévis’s refinery along the St. Lawrence River is key when it comes to diversifying fuel suppliers.

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“We have access to a deepwater port, allowing us to be supplied by ships,” Binotto said. “It is always desirable to have flexibility in our sources and ways of supply.”

Sneh Seetal, a spokeswoman for Suncor, said the company and its refinery in Montreal “have contingency plans in place, but as it’s commercially sensitive, I can’t provide specifics.” But she added that places such as Eastern Canada, Michigan and neighbouring states might have to import refined fuel products to fill any gaps and “this will come at a cost.”

Quebec Energy Minister Jonatan Julien said in a statement on Tuesday the pipeline is a “crucial infrastructure” for the province and the government is in favour of keeping Line 5 in operation. Julien, however, also said Quebec “continues efforts to ensure the diversification of our sources of energy.”

Michigan’s governor and Enbridge have agreed to mediation sessions but Enbridge won’t budge. The company says it won’t cease operations unless ordered by a court, arguing that the pipeline is running safely and reliably.

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Read more: Canada fighting ‘on every front’ to keep Line 5 pipeline open, says O’Regan

An expert who studies the Great Lakes region disagrees.

David Schwab, a research oceanographer at Michigan Technological University, has been studying the Great Lakes for the past 45 years. He pointed to a 2013 investigation by the National Wildlife Federation, which revealed that the 68-year-old pipeline, which runs beneath the Straits of Mackinac and carries 540,000 barrels per day of propane and crude oil, was unsupported and vulnerable to strong water currents.

“What happened is over time, the sand, mud and certain sections of the pipeline have been washed away,” Schwab said in a recent interview. “If we were to try and build that pipeline today, would it even be allowed?”

Schwab argues that the aging pipeline is a catastrophe waiting to happen if nothing is done. The researcher conducted more than 800 simulated spills in 2016, which he said indicated that depending on weather conditions and currents, the oil could reach Canadian shores.

“The Straits of Mackinac is the worst place in the Great Lakes to have an oil spill,” Schwab said. “There are so many different places that the oil could go. It could go anywhere!”

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