Alberta Politics
The Mackinac Bridge over the Straits of Mackinac near Mackinac City, Michigan, near the path of Enbridge Inc.’s Line 5 pipeline (Photo: Peter K. Burian, Creative Commons).

We’ve had almost 70 years to fix the problems with Line 5 and very little has happened – what now?

Posted on February 03, 2021, 2:20 am
9 mins

Doesn’t Michigan understand that letting jurisdictions along the route of a Canadian pipeline carry the risk of what’s inside the pipe while only the province at the start of the line gets to pocket the benefits is a fundamental principle of Confederation? 

Surely we established that much during the debate over expanding the Trans Mountain Pipeline after 2016 when the province of British Columbia started to argue that it shouldn’t have to bear all the risk of the bitumen Trans Mountain’s then-American owner, Kinder Morgan Inc. of Texas, planned to ship through the line.

An image of Enbridge Line 5 underneath the Straits of Mackinac (Photo: Enbridge Inc.).

Wasn’t it made clear to B.C. that even suggesting they might have an interest in what’s flowing through their province was not only unpatriotic, but amounted to ignoring the “rule of law”?

… What did you say? 

Michigan’s what? … a U.S. state?

Oh. (Pause.)

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never paid a whole lot of attention to Enbridge Line 5. I knew it was there, although exactly where there was wasn’t exactly on my radar. 

I expect that’s the way it is for most Canadians, including most Albertans. If you did a quick telephone survey and asked them to describe the route taken by Line 5, they’d have a better chance of naming the six constituent republics of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. 

Well, here’s the thing, Dear Readers. In order to get to Central Canada from the Prairies without going through Northern Ontario, Line 5 takes a shortcut through Wisconsin and Michigan. 

Conservative Party of Canada Leader Erin O’Toole (Photo: Facebook).

Anyone who’s driven to Toronto from Winnipeg without crossing the Canadian border understands why this must have seemed like a good idea in 1953 when Line 5 was being built. 

Line 5 ends in Sarnia, Ont., a hub for the Canadian petroleum industry, where its contents are used to make a lot of the gasoline used in Ontario and Quebec. 

In 1953, the same year as the original Trans Mountain Pipeline started pumping, Louis St. Laurent was prime minister of Canada Dwight Eisenhower was president of the United States. Global warming wasn’t on the radar. Pollution was considered a reasonable price of progress. 

To cut through Michigan, Line 5 had to cross the Straits of Mackinac, which run between Michigan’s Lower and Upper Peninsulas. It’s an environmentally sensitive point in one of the greatest reservoirs of fresh water on the planet. The pipeline temporarily splits into two parallel pipes that run across the bottom of the strait, completely exposed, where they’ve been gashed and dented by anchors

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (State of Michigan).

Who knew that after almost 70 years this would seem like a problem? 

Fast forward to last year: The governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer – the politician Alberta Premier Jason Kenney recently called brain dead, who also happened to be co-chair of U.S. President Joe Biden’s campaign committee – revoked the easement grated in 1953 allowing the crossing. She argued the line presented an oil spill risk, which history suggests is a legitimate concern. 

Calgary-based Enbridge points out that the line has never leaked. Michigan argues that the company has repeatedly ignored the terms of the 1953 easement. 

Back in 2018, under Ms. Whitmer’s Republican predecessor, Michigan regulators approved a tunnel to replace the pipes on the bottom of the straits. That project remains subject to challenges. Even if it gets the nod, it will take until 2024 at the earliest to complete.

Enbridge has responded to Michigan’s latest moves by vowing it won’t stop pumping stuff through the line. American lawyers are arguing over who has jurisdiction. The company doesn’t want to tell Michigan what’s going through the line.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Pipeline opponents in Michigan have created an effective and emotional campaign about protecting fresh water and wildlife in “a natural and cultural treasure held by Michigan in trust for its residents.” They say that if there were a leak, it would threaten the drinking water of 40 million people. They accurately point out that most of the product shipped through Line 5 is just shortcutting its way back to Canada, with little benefit to their state. 

The line will have to shut down in May if Gov. Whitmer gets her way. Canadian politicians are starting to freak out. 

Federal Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, sensing an opportunity, had an op-ed published in the National Post yesterday claiming the Trudeau Government isn’t doing enough to keep the line open. He claims 6,500 jobs in Sarnia are on the line, which could be true. 

“There has been no concerted pan-Canadian effort to advocate with the Governors of Wisconsin or Michigan,” he complained, ignoring Mr. Kenney’s unhelpful comment about Gov. Whitmer. 

A view of the Straits of Mackinac from space (Photo” NASA, Public Domain).

I can’t tell you the solution to this mess, but it strikes me as typical of the Canadian oil industry and the Canadian governments that have benefitted from it. We’ve had nearly 70 years to realize there might be a problem and do something about it. Nothing seems to have happened until a couple of years ago. 

For at least 20 years – long enough for a young Canadian to come of age and be able to legally buy a beer – this should have been obvious.

Instead of trying to come up with a solution, or even a Plan B, we spent years insisting the line was safe, insulted or patronized American politicians who were worried about it, and belligerently demanded more of the same. Some of our conservative politicians went south to campaign for people like Donald Trump. 

When Enbridge did come up with a plan, it sure sounds as if it was too little, too late. 

Here in Alberta, Premier Kenney has even used Enbridge’s problems with Michigan to prop up his baseless conspiracy theory about Americans trying to landlock Alberta oil. 

Well, the chickens are coming home to roost. The guy now in the White House isn’t likely to be very sympathetic. A lot of shaggy Canadian pandemic haircuts are in flames. 

Anyone have a better suggestion than a trade war with the United States that we’d be sure to lose? 

18 Comments to: We’ve had almost 70 years to fix the problems with Line 5 and very little has happened – what now?

  1. Dave

    February 3rd, 2021

    Well as far as I know, the US President has only promised to cancel one pipeline. So, we should probably chill a bit here.

    To start with, as you noted, Mr. Kenney’s over reaction is not helpful, nor is calling a US Governor brain dead. However there is a method to his madness. The only way he can win politically now is to provoke an over reaction by those he considers his opponents. Canceling Keystone XL was taken in stride by most Canadians, but shutting down an existing pipeline to Ontario. Don’t you think that could really upset the apple cart?

    First it would seriously damage Canada US relations and second it would probably boost O’Toole’s position considerably by damaging the PM’s. Which is probably why O’Toole and Kenney seems so eager to contemplate it.

    I suspect the US Federal government really doesn’t want a foreign affairs mess with its neighbour and close ally right now and some way will be found to work out the state’s concerns while keeping things moving.

    Reply
  2. Anonymous

    February 3rd, 2021

    There are at least three issues that spring up here. One being that Canadian politicians are powerless to stop whatever the American government wants. The second issue is an important one that affects all human beings on the planet. That is having uncompromised, fresh clean water. (The Walkerton tainted water tragedy, and the Flint, Michigan contaminated water fiasco come to mind.) Third, starting a trade war with America will knock Canada on its backside so fast, we wouldn’t even know what hit us. The economic fallout would be felt for a very long time. Do people even think about these realities, especially in the Conservative political world?

    Reply
  3. tom in Ontario

    February 3rd, 2021

    “I don’t know about you, but I’ve never paid a whole lot of attention to Enbridge Line 5.”
    The people of Michigan certainly have, especially after the gargantuan Enbridge spill into the Kalamazoo River in 2010.

    oilandwaterdontmix.org reports why Enbridge and the State of Michigan are at each other’s throats over Line 5.
    “November 2020 Update: After a year long review of the easement that allowed Enbridge to occupy the Great Lakes bottomlands for their oil pipeline, the Department of Natural Resources (Michigan) found several incurable violations of the easement. Governor Gretchen Wittmer just ordered the pipeline to be shut down. Attorney General Dana Nessel filed a legal action in the Ingham County Circuit Court on Wittmer’s behalf to force the shutdown. Enbridge is allowed 120 days (by May 2021) to arrange an orderly shutdown by the state. Enbridge promptly filed a federalist lawsuit challenging the shutdown order.
    January 2021 Update 1: Enbridge sends a letter to Governor Wittmer stating it has no intention of obeying the order.
    January 2021 Update 2: Enbridge is urging the Canadian government and businesses to badger Governor Wittmer to reverse the Line 5 shutdown order.”

    Reply
    • Simon Renouf

      February 3rd, 2021

      The Kalamazoo disaster in 2010 also involved Enbridge. The cleanup cost was 767 Million US$, the largest onshore cleanup in US history. After the Kalamazoo spill occurred Enbridge didn’t want to tell the US EPA what product was being shipped in the pipeline. It was dilbit, which at first floated, and then sank after the diluent evaporated.

      Reply
      • Doug

        March 4th, 2021

        The notion that diluted bitumen is dangerous is a cleverly concocted lie by the eNGO community. Numerous studies, like the one referenced in this article, clearly demonstrate otherwise:
        https://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/bitumen-floats-longer-than-expected-natural-resources-canada-research-shows

        Anyone with even high school level physics knows that a substance less dense than water will float. Distilled water at 39.2C has a density of 1.0 g/cm3. Water with dissolved minerals will be denser as will water all the way down to 4C (water is densest at 4C and becomes less dense as it cools or warms from that point). Safe to say that any water in which dilbit would spill in Canada will be denser than 1.0 g/cm3. All dilbit blends have densities of less than 1.0 g/cm3: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/282580648_Review_of_The_Properties_and_Behaviour_of_Diluted_Bitumens. Over time, the lighter hydrocarbons will evaporate, causing the density to increase. Figure 9 in the same paper shows that even after 12 days at 15C, dilbit is still less dense than 1.0 g/cm3 and will float. Extra margin is build in as even fresh water will have some dissolved minerals and at 15C will be denser than 1.0 g/cm3

        Reply
  4. Abs

    February 3rd, 2021

    “Pipeline opponents in Michigan have created an effective and emotional campaign about protecting fresh water and wildlife in “a natural and cultural treasure held by Michigan in trust for its residents.” They say that if there were a leak, it would threaten the drinking water of 40 million people. They accurately point out that most of the product shipped through Line 5 is just shortcutting its way back to Canada, with little benefit to their state.”

    First of all, has Steve Allan put these folks at the top of his list for anti-Albertan activities? That list must be getting a little top-heavy by now. Mind you, he can cull to his heart’s content with all those deadline extensions.

    Second, isn’t this ironic? Those chickens are coming home to roost on the Eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies, where the drinking water of 4.3 million people will be at risk, not to mention any danger to wildlife, wildlife habitat, and the cultural treasure of all Canadians, including our indigenous people.

    Third, isn’t the new plan for coal mining on the Eastern slopes all about making Albertans assume all the risk and responsibility for reclamation (similar to orphan wells)? How does one rebuild a flattened mountain and remove selenium and other contaminants from rivers after the fact? What benefit exists for Albertans, aside from $66,000, or a penny per person, if pennies still existed? You’d have to be brain dead to think that this is a good idea.

    Speaking of water, the fight continues in the community of Bearspaw, west of Calgary, where an American gravel company is making its third attempt to build a quarry near the community’s water co-op. Third time unlucky for the residents? It’s Kenneyland now. Anything could happen. Socially-responsible open pit gravel mines: I’m guessing the company’s submission of technical and environmental studies to AHS and Alberta Environment and Parks is of little comfort to landowners. What could go wrong? The residents might want to contact the people of Ontario for advice.

    https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/bearspaw-land-owner-rocky-view-county-scott-property-gravel-pit-1.5896262

    Reply
  5. Art

    February 3rd, 2021

    To get a better understanding of the line 5 situation AP readers can find this excellent Feb.3 2020 article. “Jason Kenney’s Other Pipeline War Is with Michigan” by Geoff Dembicki in thetyee.ca .

    Reply
  6. Farmer Brian

    February 3rd, 2021

    Would the energy east proposal have solved this problem? As for Line 5 it supplies half of Ontario’s and Quebec’s crude oil plus a lot of their propane. Would shutting down this line affect Alberta more or Ontario and Quebec. I am willing to wager Ontario and Quebec! Will be interesting to watch.

    Reply
    • Doug

      March 4th, 2021

      Yes. EE would have repurposed a portion of TC’s mainline to carry oil instead of gas. The mainline runs north of the Great Lakes.

      Reply
  7. Political Ranger

    February 3rd, 2021

    What this story has in common with the piece yesterday and our current covid crisis is who is making the decisions. Do we let individuals and corporations make decisions that harm some person or place, or all persons and places, so that they can realise a benefit?
    We fought a couple world wars and sacrificed over 100,000 of our citizens to answer that question. It was clear to any thinking person what the answer was until the 1980’s. Since then the kooky , ignorant and self-interested conservatives have successfully been selling the idea that government is a bad idea and Big Government is an especially bad idea. That only business can do things effectively and efficiently. That the pursuit of profit is an end unto itself and is the only reason needed to do things.
    Well conservatives, of all stripes, are wrong. They were then and they are now. In many cases they are criminally wrong!

    The people, the communities, the landscapes are all part of every decision made in this country. We have laws restricting what you can do personally. We need laws restricting what corporations can and cannot do. Definitely what they’re doing at present but especially so for what they’ll be doing in the future. And their subservient irresponsible and negligent government lackies.

    Yes, you betcha! Let’s resurrect the NEP. In it’s finer details perhaps not the best of thought-out plans but in its general form, a great model to follow across the whole of the country and throughout our economy.
    Now, more than ever, we need a National Energy Strategy. It’s only the idiotic conservatives who are afraid of this.
    We need a plan to provide for the health and welfare of our citizens especially during and after an emergency like a pandemic. Again, it was the conservatives who sold off Connaught Labs.
    We need a plan to raise and grow the food for the population. It was the conservatives who gave away the CWB.
    We need to plan for the full life cycle of our infrastructure needs. We need to plan for the use and exploitation of our natural resources across all generations. Only the conservatives balk at this.
    We need to plan how and what to educate our people for the future coming at us. Not the orthodoxies and dogma that conservatives believe are important.

    Reply
  8. John Kolkman

    February 3rd, 2021

    I’m puzzled by the comment that Enbridge is refusing to tell Michigan what is flowing through the dual pipelines. Line 5 carries light crude oil and natural gas liquids, not bitumen. Line 5 also supplies 55% of Michigan’s propane requirements. It’s an exaggeration to say that Michigan is only being used as a transit point to Sarnia.

    The threat of Line 5 being shut down until the Mackinac tunnel is completed is low. An international pipeline is under US federal not state jurisdiction. It’s one thing to pull the federal permit for Keystone XL where construction in the US has not even begun. Shutting down an existing pipeline that supplies refineries in both the US Midwest and eastern Canada is an entirely different political calculation for the US federal government.

    Kenney’s linkage of the two issues is just so much political butt covering. It’s designed to distract from the UCP’s reckless billion dollar plus gamble on a second Trump term by prematurely starting Keystone XL construction on this side of the border.

    Reply
    • Doug

      March 4th, 2021

      Agreed. All pipeline politics is political grandstanding: faking climate change action by going after the easiest targets that are poorly understood by the general public.

      Reply
  9. Peter Wilson

    February 3rd, 2021

    “Our greatest friend and ally” has gotten us into one helluva mess and now two rusty, anchor dented pipes under the Mackinac Strait are going to be shut down, separating Canada into “2 new energy solitudes”!

    It is a good job that the present TMX pipeline is underused so much that we can send tankers through the Panama Canal to the Irving Refinery for distribution to Eastern Canadians.

    Whether we can afford the Panama Canal fees is another matter.

    Perhaps hire a Chinese company to realise the new Mackinac tunnel project in a matter of weeks as they seem capable of building infrastructure almost overnight.

    The CanSino Biologics vaccine ADT-nCOV, developed in conjunction with the Harper emasculated National Research Council was stopped, by Chinese customs, from entering Canada to begin trials because of the now over 2 year detention of Ms. Meng. The vaccine project was abandoned by the NRC, when a simple intervention by the Minister of Justice, could have freed Ms. Meng, released the 2 Michaels, opened up exports of Canadian agricultural pruducts and saved countless people who have and will die because Canada has no vaccines.

    Oh Canada!

    Reply
  10. Mickey Rat

    February 3rd, 2021

    C’mon DJC you should see what the solution to the problem is. It may be that 70 years without a problem is just dumb luck but nonetheless that’s the history. To recap; the argument is that the pipeline lying on the bottom of the lake is susceptible to failure and contamination of “a natural and cultural treasure held by Michigan in trust for its residents.” So, the answer is to get on with the bullet-proof solution of drilling a tunnel beneath the Straits of Mackinac to house Line 5. Tunneling like this is technology that wasn’t available in the past but is commonplace now.

    But this is not the end result many are looking for. Deleting the crossing permanently would leave options which are not acceptable to anyone, like plowing a pipeline through Northern Ontario. So to be clear – this is about shutting down the pipeline. I’m not talking some wild Kenny/Allan conspiracy theory, this is the reality.

    There will be arguments made like the ones in your blog about the dangers of a leak and probably more in the forthcoming comments, but the issue is about shutting down Line 5 not protecting Lake Michigan.

    Line 5 liquids, whatever they are, spend more time in Minnesota and Wisconsin than they do in Michigan yet those two states are not opposed to Enbridge’s Line 5. “Jeez maybe this is political” – you bet your ass it is. Using Line 5 for political aspirations is deceitful and calling the governor of Michigan “brain dead” is real political stupidity…

    Reply
  11. Political Ranger

    February 3rd, 2021

    So, after 70 some years (or more) we have, finally, a guiding light. We have Final Report of the Independent Review on the Economics of Biodiversity led by Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/final-report-the-economics-of-biodiversity-the-dasgupta-review?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter_axiosfutureofwork&stream=future

    In the Preface, Sir David Attenborough says “We are facing a global crisis. We are totally dependent upon the natural world. It supplies us with every oxygen-laden breath we take and every mouthful of food we eat. But we are currently damaging it so profoundly that many of its natural systems are now on the verge of breakdown.”

    This is a heavy, heavy read but full of actionable answers going forward. Dasgupta argues we need to look at natural capital as we would other forms of capital, investing it wisely to ensure that future generations enjoy not just natural splendor, but the raw materials an economy depends on.
    Investing wisely cuts kkkenney and the UCP out of the picture but we finally have the economic underpinnings to push forward with sensible long term plans for our economic and environmental well being.

    Reply
  12. Just Me

    February 3rd, 2021

    It will be very amusing watching the Angry Midget sell anti-American rhetoric to his Alberta horde. With the overpowering lure of Las Vegas’ siren song, I know that many a UCP voter will turn away from Kenney’s bluster just for another chance to walk “The Strip” and gamble their few remaining Buffalo shekels away in one of the hundreds of glitzy casinos.

    Now that Ottawa will turn a deaf ear to Alberta’s endless whining, since there’s not a single vote to be had there, I suspect that the #wexit crowd will get their dander up, as visions of their new homeland dance in their brains. Go ahead. Delusion is good self-entertainment, so have at it.

    Of course, watching Kenney go berserk over a brain-dead Democratic state governor, just happens to have uterus, will be doubly satisfying. Maybe Kenney will make another appearance on Foxnews and explain how there is an equivalency between having a uterus and being brain-dead. He maybe introduced as a “Canadian-expert on all things female” just to heighten the coming avalanche of laughs.

    Reply

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