Enbridge shutdown will impact Ontario-based refineries

MICHIGAN – The energy industry on both sides of the border was rocked by the news that Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer had followed up on her campaign promise to shut down the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline that runs along the lakebed of the Straits of Mackinaw to supply more than half a million barrels of oil and gas a day to refineries in several US states, Ontario and Quebec. 

On Friday, November 13 the governor announced that she was moving to end the easement that allows the giant Canadian energy company to run its pipeline across the straits.

The news was met with a positive reaction by environmental groups, including those on Manitoulin Island, but not so much by Canadian provincial politicians and energy companies.

On November 24, Enbridge lawyers filed a federal complaint in the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan seeking an injunction to stop the State of Michigan from taking any steps to prevent the operation of Line 5. The complaint alleges that the “attempt to shut down Line 5 interferes with the comprehensive federal regulation of pipeline safety and burdens interstate and foreign commerce in clear violation of federal law and the US Constitution. Enbridge is also today moving the complaint filed by the state against Line 5 on November 13 in Michigan state court to the Federal Court.”

“She’s (Governor Whitmer) on the right track,” said environmentalist Mike Wilton of Spring Bay following the news. “I’m sure there is going to be a lot of hoopla surrounding this and that court action will be taken by Enbridge. I admire the lady; this is what she was going to do all along.”

As anticipated, the embattled Calgary-based pipeline company has announced it will push back against the move, maintaining that the 65-year-old pipeline remains safe and that the 1953 easement should not be revoked. The company announced that, “The notice from the State and the report from Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) are a distraction from the fundamental facts,” said Vern Yu, executive vice president and president of Liquids Pipelines in a release sent to The Expositor. “Line 5 remains safe, as envisioned by the 1953 Easement, and as recently validated by our federal safety regulator.”

Line 5 is an essential source of energy for not only Michigan but for the entire region including Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Ontario and Quebec, maintains the company, adding that any disruption would have devastating consequences.

It is a sentiment shared by at least two Canadian provincial governments.

“The impact of this would be devastating,” Alberta Premier Jason Kenney told ‘The Roy Green Show,’ a nationally syndicated news radio show and podcast based in Montreal.

“It is the single largest supply for gasoline, ultimately, in southern Ontario; for aviation fuel out of the Detroit airport; for heating fuel in northern Michigan; for the refineries in northern Ohio that fuel much of the Midwest US economy,” Premier Kenney said. “So this is a very, very big deal.”

The Alberta premier pointed out Line 5 has operated safely without a significant environmental incident for 60 years and called the effort to shut it down “part of the broader campaign to land-lock Canadian energy.”  Premier Kenney said he visited Michigan last year and attempted to meet with Governor Whitmer but was not accommodated.

“Enbridge’s Line 5 is a key artery that connects North American crude oil to Ontario,” said Ontario Minister of Energy, Northern Development and Mines Greg Rickford in a Twitter post addressing the issue. “Ontario’s four refineries ensure that Ontario, Quebec, Michigan and the entire Great Lakes region are supplied with essential products like home heating fuels, gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.” 

Minister Rickford went on to assert that “this shut down will put over 4,900 jobs at risk and jeopardize Ontario and Michigan’s energy supply that we rely on daily.”

The minister went on to assert that “pipelines are the safest way to transport fuels across ecologically sensitive areas like our Great Lakes.” He pointed out that the shutdown was a counterproductive move environmentally, as it would lead to increased reliance on truck, rail and marine transport “leading to higher costs for consumers, growing congestion, increased green house gas emissions and place unnecessary risk on our communities and the environment.”

For its part Enbridge said it was confident that Line 5 continues to operate safely and that there is no credible basis for ending the 1953 easement allowing the two Line 5 pipelines to cross the Straits of Mackinac.  

 “We will continue to focus on the safe operation of the dual Line 5 pipelines at the Straits of Mackinac,” continued Mr. Yu, “ensuring the Great Lakes are protected while also reliably delivering the energy that helps to fuel Michigan’s and the region’s economy.”

The move to shut down the easement came in the form of a state release citing the pipeline as “a grave and unreasonable risk to the state’s residents and natural resources” and requiring the pipeline be shut down for 180 days as of May 12, 2021. It is only the latest volley in a battle that has been ongoing for several years.

Enbridge has decried the process used by the Michigan DNR in conducting its assessment of the company’s easement compliance, saying it was run “in a non-public manner.”

A statement from the company asserts that the DNR “rejected Enbridge’s offer to allow technical experts to discuss any questions or clarifications related to its review. This failure to engage reflects a lack of understanding or worse, a continued failure to meet the state’s commitments under the 2018 Second Agreement between the State of Michigan and Enbridge, which contemplates periodic meetings on pipeline issues to avoid just this kind of situation.”

For its part, Michigan cites what it alleges is “a pattern of non-compliance with conditions for safely operating the line on the part of Enbridge.”

The company has actually almost welcomed the move, noting “with the actions by the governor and attorney general based on historical Line 5 compliance, Enbridge finally will have an opportunity to review the DNR’s analysis and provide a thorough response through the legal process,” something they said they had been denied by the state’s opaque process.

Legal analysts suggest that, although the Michigan governor’s move demands a shutdown of the pipeline by May 2021, the court battles would likely drag out for many more months or even years.

A new pipeline plan would see the pipeline replaced by one running in a proposed tunnel bored deep beneath the straits for which Enbridge has already secured some positive response from US environmental authorities.

The impact of a rupture of the Line 5 pipeline would potentially have a devastating impact on the North Channel, Lake Huron and Manitoulin Island according to a computer model released by the University of Michigan Water Centre which showed a worst case scenario bringing an oil spill to 720 miles or 1,162 kilometres of shoreline—including significant parts of Manitoulin Island. Enbridge disputes that model.