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'Massive and potentially permanent disruption': Canada's bleak view of Line 5 closure

"What is the most concerning to us in Alberta – as it should be for everyone – is the dangerous precedent that a shutdown of a safely operating pipeline would set for future oil and gas infrastructure projects," said Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage.
cp line five
In this June 8, 2017, file photo, fresh nuts, bolts and fittings are ready to be added to the east leg of the pipeline near St. Ignace, Mich., as Enbridge prepares to test the east and west sides of the Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac in Mackinaw City, Mich.

WASHINGTON — Shutting down the Line 5 pipeline in Michigan would deal a "massive and potentially permanent" blow to Canada's economy and energy security and risk lasting damage to relations with the United States, the federal government argues in court documents released Tuesday. 

The documents mark Canada's formal entry into the legal dispute between Michigan and the pipeline's owner and operator, Calgary-based Enbridge Inc., which comes on the eve of the deadline imposed last November by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

They make largely the same argument Canada has been making for months: that Line 5 comprises a vital artery of North America's energy infrastructure, and cutting it would be calamitous for both countries. 

But they also raise the ante significantly by warning of the potential risk to the relationship between Canada and the U.S. if the pipeline ceases to operate. 

"The proposed shutdown would cause a massive and potentially permanent disruption to Canada's economy and energy security," say the documents, known in legal parlance as an amicus brief.

If allowed to stand, Michigan's "unilateral action" would foster doubt about any foreign-policy commitments the U.S. might choose to make if any one state can so easily undermine them, the brief says. 

"A hastily and unduly imposed shutdown would undermine the confidence in reciprocal, enforceable commitments and cross-border co-operation that lies at the heart of the United States-Canada relationship." 

Whitmer originally gave Enbridge until Wednesday to shut down the pipeline, a demand the company says it has no plans to meet. But with a court-appointed mediator scheduled to meet with the two sides again on May 18, it's not clear whether anything will happen before then.

Enbridge officials pointed to a statement from Monday when asked whether the pipeline would continue to operate past Wednesday. 

"We 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," the statement read.

"Line 5 is operating safely, reliably and is in compliance with the law."

Canada's Natural Resources Minister Seamus O'Regan echoed that sentiment and said in an interview it's "very unlikely" a shutdown would be ordered while the parties are in mediation. 

“In the absence of a court order, this pipeline operates.”

The dispute first erupted in November when Whitmer — citing the risk of an environmental catastrophe in the Straits of Mackinac, the waterway where Line 5 traverses the Great Lakes — revoked the easement that had allowed the line to operate since 1953. 

Enbridge insists the pipeline is safe, and has already received the state's approval for a $500-million effort to dig a tunnel beneath the straits that would house the line's twin pipes and protect them from anchor strikes. 

O'Regan has said 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 as well, to say nothing of Ontario and Quebec. 

“Molecules will get from Point A to Point B, energy gets to where it needs to get, but the alternative is not pretty,” he said. 

“It would be incredibly messy, incredibly polluting, incredibly expensive and nowhere near as safe. Thousands of 18-wheelers clogging up the 401 and the 403.”

U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, herself a former Michigan governor, refused to take a position on the dispute Tuesday, citing the fact that it remains before the courts. 

"We don't wade in on that," Granholm said. "It will be decided in court." 

Instead, Granholm was preoccupied with the fallout from a different pipeline problem: the massive Colonial line, a delivery system for nearly half the fuel consumed on the U.S. East Coast, which has been shut down since Thursday following a devastating cyberattack from overseas. 

As a result, Tuesday's White House briefing was dominated by talk of rising gasoline prices, fuel hoarding and the environmental impact of having to use trucks and trains — all likely consequences of a Line 5 shutdown as well. 

O'Regan said the fight is between Michigan and Enbridge and doesn't expect the administration to get involved, or believe it would help. 

"This is very much a legal proceeding right now, not a political one."

Proponents of Line 5 say closure would mean immediate gasoline shortages and price spikes, as well as an estimated 800 more oil-laden rail cars and 2,000 tanker trucks per day on railways and highways throughout Central Canada and the U.S. Midwest.

Canada's brief leans extensively on the close ties between the two countries, noting that they have successfully negotiated a bilateral agreement for protecting the Great Lakes, the original NAFTA and its recent successor, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. 

There's also Norad, the shared continental defence network, "under which a Canadian general gave the order to scramble jets to protect the United States on Sept. 11, 2001," the brief notes. 

The documents urge the court to prevent a "unilateral compelled shutdown" on the grounds that the pipeline is specifically covered by a 1977 treaty that deals specifically with cross-border pipelines. 

It is for the two national governments, under the terms of that treaty, to sort out the dispute, the documents argue. 

Line 5 "is a tangible symbol of a traditionally strong relationship between Canada and the U.S. and pivotal to North American energy security," said Saskatchewan Energy Minister Bronwyn Eyre, whose province depends on the line for some 70 per cent of its energy exports. 

Sonya Savage, Eyre's Alberta counterpart, warned of the potential for a lingering chill if Whitmer is successful.

"What is the most concerning to us in Alberta – as it should be for everyone – is the dangerous precedent that a shutdown of a safely operating pipeline would set for future oil and gas infrastructure projects."

Not everyone in Canada, however, opposes Whitmer's efforts. A number of Indigenous groups in Ontario support a shutdown, as does Green party Leader Annamie Paul. 

Michiganders remember well an Enbridge spill in 2010 that dumped more than 3.3 million litres of diluted bitumen into the Kalamazoo River, fouling more than 40 kilometres of shoreline, Paul said. 

"It is understandable that the people of Michigan are extremely sensitive to the dangerous consequences of a potential spill from Line 5, and chose to elect a governor who explicitly campaigned on the promise to shut down the line."

— with files from Stephanie Taylor

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 11, 2021. 

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said the Department of Natural Resources filed the court documents.