House Call with Carol Hughes

Line 5 dispute highlights years of inaction

The multi-district balancing act that moves oil from Canada’s western provinces to refineries in southern Ontario and Quebec is in peril due to a shutdown order for the aged Line 5 pipeline that crosses the Straits of Mackinac under Lake Michigan. The possibility of disruption is huge and highlights our challenges maintaining infrastructure and the glacial rate of progress on clean energy sources needed to replace fossil fuels to achieve our climate ambitions.

For constituents on the north shore of Lake Huron the issue hits closest to home. Michigan and Huron are really a single lake basin which means any oil spilled in this sensitive area could flow east or west before finding its way out of the St. Clair and Illinois rivers.

A 2012 report from the National Wildlife Federation played a key role in raising awareness of the threats posed by submerged pipelines like Line 5. This prompted citizens, organizations and First Nation communities on both sides of the border to call for the closure of Line 5 given the major impact a rupture would have on the Great Lakes ecosystem and environment. Citing the potential for disaster, Michigan issued a shut-down order for the line as of May 12.

For its part, Enbridge, which operates Line 5, is refusing to comply unless ordered by a court or regulator to do so. To complicate matters, the company has already received approval from the state for the construction of a tunnel that will move the line below the lakebed, reducing the chance for accidents involving foreign objects like ship’s anchors.

If the pipeline were to shut permanently, the negative effects would be significant. In addition to increased cost for fuel (and everything fuel dependent) as supply lines are re-invented, the possibility for environmental incidents increase as oil is moved by rail, transport, and even ships on the same Great Lakes the closure would be intended to protect. If the shutdown happens without an alternative solution, Canada could see as much as a 50 percent cut in fuel capacity which would send shock waves through the economy as the cost of gas alone and home heating fuels rise.

There are domestic pressures being applied in the United States, too. Line 5 also delivers more than half the propane and home heating oil for Michigan and is an important source of energy for other States. The belief is the governor will back down, but the issue showcases so much of the work we must engage in to ensure our energy security now, and into the future.

In Canada, the government must have a strategy to protect jobs threatened by the possible pipeline closure and the environment of the Great Lakes at the same time. That balance may be found by fortifying Line 5 while fostering a real transition to a non-fossil fuel economy.

A report on Line 5 was tabled by a special committee of the house of commons last week. New Democrats criticized the study citing the absence of Indigenous input and voices as a flaw that must be addressed. Going forward, it will be critically important to engage Indigenous people on both sides of the border to find a lasting solution.

This threatened shutdown shows how much work remains for Canada to move for an over-reliance on fossil fuels to a low carbon economy. Decades of delay and denial have left us unprepared as the world moves toward a low-carbon future. New Democrats have proposed ways to move in that direction including diverting billions of dollars in subsidies and tax breaks from fossil fuel companies to renewable energy sources. The challenge lies in bridging the gap between fossil fuels and renewables. Currently, Line 5 is integral to that exercise, but it must be phased out as alternatives become readily and cheaply available. That won’t happen in the timeline we require without assistance and direction from the government.