Editorial: Line 5 is a case study in the economy/climate divide

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Line 5 is once again in the news, with 12 Michigan tribes and their Canadian counterparts in the Three Fires Confederacy lobbying their respective governments to allow the shutdown of the 68-year-old dual pipeline that runs through the Straits of Mackinac. If there is any issue that illustrates the Gordian Knot of a puzzle facing those trying to find a balance between the current and day-to-day needs of the economy and the looming spectre of the climate crisis perfectly, it would be the case of Enbridge’s Line 5.

That isn’t to say the two solitudes on either side of the issue have any doubts. Environmentalists would see the knot cleaved with an Alexandrian gusto by shutting Line 5 down now, immediately, or at least start the process of shutting Line 5 down as soon as possible. Enbridge and a host of fossil fuel refineries and consumers groups, unions and other economic players (think Alberta’s oil production that flows through the line to Sarnia’s refineries) are wont to say ‘just leave it be,’ as the supplies of propane and jet fuel it supplies are simply too vital to cut.

It isn’t a moot point for Manitoulin Island. At least one spill projection has shown a worst case scenario where an oil spill from Line 5 would follow the prevailing currents to wind up on our western shores.

Enbridge has agreed that it is time for the dual pipeline to be decommissioned, or at least time to bow to pressure opposing Line 5, and has proposed a tunnel, buried 250 feet under the lakebed through the Straits of Mackinac, as a solution to any fears that a spill in the sensitive Great Lakes waters could occur.

Environmentalists don’t like the idea of a tunnel either. Any new infrastructure that encourages the use of fossil fuels remains an anathema. With the dire predictions that continue to pile up if the globe does not rein in its carbon footprint, it is easy for anyone with an open mind to see why there is so strong a passion weighing in on that argument.

But the economic side of the ledger is also challenging. Although many environmentalists are willing to take the economic hit from immediately ending the use of fossil fuels, literally thousands of workers depend on the jobs that flow with Line 5’s gas and oil in order to put food on their tables and a roof over their family’s heads. As long as the argument stays hypothetical, or at least someone else’s pain, it is easy to follow the righteous, ethical and noble path of abstinence—another thing entirely when the wolf comes knocking at the door.

The environmentalist side of the knot points out that a spill in the Straits of Mackinac would have a potentially devastating impact on even more thousands of jobs. Proponents of the continued operation of Line 5 point out that the line has never leaked and reiterate that a tunnel would solve the issue of oil leaks.

Both sides are not averse to plumping their arguments. Opponents of Line 5 point to the dismal record of Enbridge when it comes to pipeline spills, but they reference spills of welded pipelines. Line 5 is not a welded pipeline and not as prone to the ruptures that can occur with a welded line. Proponents point to the fact that Line 5 has never leaked and suggest that it never could, glossing over the fact that Line 5 has been struck and dragged by massive ship’s anchors (they do point out that anchoring near the line is now prohibited—but then it also was before the latest anchor strike as well).

Proponents have put forward what is arguably an unrealistic timeline for building the new tunnel that would house Line 5’s replacement, especially given that environmentalists vow to slow the approval process for that project with every fibre of their being.

There is a lot at stake on both sides and finding a balance between what can be put, in Star Trek terms, as the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the many, is not as simple as either side would like to paint it.

Both sides agree the current location of the Line 5 pipelines should end. One might be forgiven for thinking there might be the seeds of some compromise in there—the tunnel concept being one possibility—but that ignores the greater issue that drives the battle against Line 5. It is plain that the real issue is not the danger of oil spills in the Straits of Mackinac; it is the ongoing battle against fossil fuels.

Hopefully, some balance can be found by those not blindly driven by their urgent passions, be that of environmental or economic necessities, but in the end the most likely blade to cut this knot will be that of political expediency—that blade has not generally known to be wielded so much in the public’s interest as that of special interests.

How the Line 5 issue plays out will likely portend how the larger issues facing our globe will be dealt with. It is in everyone’s best interests to pay attention and to let their elected leaders know their will.