Drawing a Line (5) in the Sand

4 minute read

A lot of ink has been spilled over the Line 5 saga – including in Summa’s weekly Look Ahead. This week, we take a look at what sets this pipeline apart, and why so much effort – across political party lines and the border – is going into ensuring its continued safe operation. 

Canadian politicians from all major parties are united in their support for Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline – and for good reason. The conflict between Michigan Governor Whitmer and Enbridge over whether the pipeline can continue to operate has ramifications for most Canadians. While Canadian politics has frequently been dominated by quarrels over pipelines, this one is different. 

For almost 70 years, Line 5 has safely delivered crude oil for processing by Ontario refineries. It ensures a cost-effective local supply of gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, and other petroleum products. This not only keeps good-paying jobs in Canada, it helps moderate prices for Ontario and Quebec consumers by reducing reliance on imports from refineries in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.

The prospect of shutting down Line 5 represents a serious threat to Canadian workers and consumers. Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline is an integral part of Canada’s economy. Shutting it down will not only impact Canada’s energy security and drive consumer prices through the roof, but it will also cost thousands of workers their livelihood. It is estimated that as many as 30,000 jobs on both sides of the border rely on the petroleum products shipped through this critical pipeline. This is why earlier this month Canada’s Building Trades Unions and North America’s Building Trades Unions submitted an amicus curiae brief in the U.S. federal court calling for the safe and continued operation of Enbridge’s Line 5 to protect these jobs on both sides of the border.

Each day, 540,000 barrels of light crude, synthetic crude or natural gas liquid is transported via Line 5. To put this into context, Line 5 is responsible for supplying 66% of Quebec’s crude oil needs and 50% of Ontario’s. Just take a second to think about that – 60% of the Canadian population relies on this pipeline for everything from propane, to gasoline, to diesel, to jet fuel for both the Pearson and Trudeau airports. 

These are just a few of the reasons why the Canadian government intervened this month, albeit somewhat last minute, and petitioned the court to prevent Michigan from closing the pipeline unilaterally. The application to the courts buys Canada more time to find a negotiated solution with the Governor or the Biden Administration. But is Canada doing enough to preserve this vital energy supply? 

The Conservative opposition has urged the Prime Minister to invoke the 1977 Treaty between Canada and the U.S. that was established to prevent the interruption of the transmission of petroleum products by pipeline. The only permissible justifications in the treaty for impeding the transmission of oil are natural disasters or emergencies. Even then, those can only be temporary stoppages. The treaty relies on binding arbitration to resolve disputes. 

Admittedly, Prime Minister Trudeau must perform a tough balancing act leading a government committed to accelerating Canada’s transition to a green, environmentally sustainable economy while governing a country with an important oil and gas industry. But Line 5 is the safest, greenest solution when compared to other transportation options. Without Line 5, as many as half a million barrels a day would need to be shipped via rail, tanker trucks or even Great Lakes barges. This would add considerable strain on the transportation infrastructure in Ontario and require increased risk mitigation.

Enbridge has proposed a longer term solution to Michigan’s concerns through a proposed tunnel that would run deep under the straits to protect the Great Lakes. The company has also committed to using 100% union labour as part of the construction of the tunnel, demonstrating the good working relationship Enbridge has built with the building trades on both sides of the border. Governor Whitmer has stated her support for the more than half-a-billion dollar Great Lakes Tunnel project, which would take up to three years to construct. While this may offer an eventual solution to the issue, cooler heads need to prevail – or be ordered to do so by the courts.  

There’s no doubt this pipeline dispute is a thorny issue for both the Trudeau and Biden administrations, who would much rather be talking about a continental approach to addressing climate change or investments in renewable energy. These are important policy discussions that are best advanced through bilateral or multilateral collaboration. There may come a day when our economy, and hundreds of thousands of jobs, no longer rely on fossil fuels. Until then, Canada – and indeed, Michigan – needs Line 5 to stay operational.

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