Correction: An earlier version of this article referred inaccurately to Enbridge’s mainline system of pipelines as its mainland system. The article has been corrected.
In a move applauded by environmentalists and Indigenous groups on both sides of the border, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) in November ordered the firm to shut down the nearly 70-year-old lines by May 12.
Canadian officials, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, have appealed to their American counterparts, including President Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm for help.
Joe Comartin, Canada’s consul general in Detroit, said a shutdown would have “significant” impacts on both sides of the border. He predicted effects ranging from months-long propane shortages to higher costs for consumers to fuels being carried by rail, truck or boat — methods that he said are less emissions-friendly and more dangerous than a pipeline.
“It certainly strains our relationship,” he said, “and we’ve had a very long history of working closely together.”
One “irritant,” he said, is “the claim from the state that they are doing this to protect the Great Lakes, that they’re more interested in protecting the Great Lakes than we in Canada are. Basically, we reject that completely.”
Line 5, built in 1953, is part of Enbridge’s mainline system, which carries fuel from Alberta’s oil sands to the Midwestern United States and Eastern Canada. Running from Superior, Wis., to Sarnia, Ontario, it is a key conduit for refineries in those regions, which make gas, propane and home-heating oils, as well as jet fuels for airports in Toronto and Detroit.
For 4.5 miles under Michigan’s Straits of Mackinac, the waterway where Lake Huron meets Lake Michigan, Line 5 splits into dual pipelines.
Whitmer announced last fall that she was revoking the 1953 easement that allows the lines to cross the straits, citing the “unreasonable risk” that they pose to the Great Lakes and what she said were Enbridge’s “persistent” breaches of the easement’s terms.
The announcement listed several infractions, including failures to ensure that the lines are supported every 75 feet and that they’re covered by a coating to prevent erosion. It noted two incidents, in 2018 and 2019, in which the pipelines were struck and damaged by cables or anchors from boats.
Enbridge is challenging the move in U.S. federal court. It has vowed to continue operating the pipeline beyond Whitmer’s deadline, absent a court order. The sides began mediation in April.
Environmental groups, more than a dozen state attorneys general and several Indigenous tribes filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of the state’s argument that the matter should be decided by a Michigan state court.
“The Straits of Mackinac are a sacred wellspring of life and culture for Tribal Amici and other Indian Tribes in Michigan,” the tribes wrote in their brief. “An oil spill into those waters would be culturally, economically, spiritually and historically devastating.”
Enbridge said the twin pipes under the straits are in good condition and “probably the most heavily monitored pipeline segments in the Enbridge system, if not the nation.”
“Line 5 is operating safely, reliably and is in compliance with the law,” said Tracie Kenyon, an Enbridge spokeswoman. “The State of Michigan has never presented any concrete evidence to suggest otherwise.”
In 2018, the company negotiated a deal with then-Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) to rehouse the lines under the straits in a concrete tunnel.
Beth Wallace of the National Wildlife Federation said Line 5 poses an “urgent” threat, and the process of securing permits for the tunnel and constructing it will take longer than the company asserts. She said the firm has overstated the impacts of a closure.
Seamus O’Regan, Canada’s natural resources minister, has cast a shutdown as a threat to Canada’s energy security — one he is “watching like a hawk.” He told a parliamentary committee in March that the pipeline provides 53 percent of Ontario’s crude and 66 percent of Quebec’s and 55 percent of Michigan’s propane needs.
“As the Minister has repeatedly made clear, the continued safe operation of Line 5 is vital for energy security on both sides of the border,” said Ian B. Cameron, a spokesman for O’Regan.
Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley said the dispute is fueling “a lot of anxiety” in the border city, where he said thousands of jobs are at risk.
“I’ve written more letters to the governor than Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthians,” he told Canadian lawmakers in March, “and I’ve gotten no responses back.”
Bradley told The Washington Post that Whitmer’s behavior is doing “immense” damage to cross-border ties.
“She may be focused on her one issue, but the relationship between Ontario and Michigan has been set back, in my view, for decades,” he said.
Whitmer’s office did not respond to questions about Canadian concerns for bilateral relations. Spokesman Bobby Leddy said the governor stands by her decision, and Enbridge’s continued operations of the lines after May 12 would be “unlawful.”
“These oil pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac are a ticking time bomb,” he said. “Their continued presence violates the public trust and poses a grave threat to Michigan’s environment and economy.”
Canada has not ruled out invoking a 1977 treaty that bars officials from actions that “would have the effect of impeding, diverting, redirecting or interfering with … the transmission of hydrocarbon in transit” unless there was a natural disaster or operating emergency.
The treaty has never been invoked, said Kristen van de Biezenbos, an energy law professor at the University of Calgary, in part because there don’t appear to have been other attempts by public officials to stop a working pipeline that crosses the U.S.-Canada border.
That “tells you something about how unusual Line 5 is,” she said.
Several oil companies have said they believe a shutdown in the near term to be unlikely, but they have contingency plans in place. Mark Little, chief executive of Suncor, said in a February earnings call that the company bought a stake in a different pipeline that could import oil from Maine to Montreal. A spokeswoman for the Greater Toronto Airports Authority said fuel sources for Toronto’s Pearson International Airport are “diversified and consequently not at risk.”
Canada is the world’s fourth-largest producer of crude oil. The United States is its top customer.
Granholm, a former Michigan governor who was born in Canada, was asked at a CNN town hall in April about Enbridge’s controversial Line 3 project, which aims to replace segments of an existing pipeline. She said the project was not under her purview — but had some tough words on Canada’s oil sands.
“If we’re going to do pipes, let’s do pipes that build the infrastructure of America in a way that is future-looking,” Granholm said, “and not rely upon fuels or transport fuels — even though our neighbors to the North want it — that are not going to contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”
Biden signed an executive order on his first day in office revoking the permit for an extension of TC Energy’s Keystone XL pipeline that would have carried 800,000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta to Nebraska.
Trudeau expressed disappointment, a reminder that there’d be sticking points in the relationship even if a new administration featured a more collegial tone.
“That has had obviously a negative impact on cooperation,” Comartin said. “This would be another example of that.”
The White House declined to comment.
Looming larger over the debate in Michigan is a spill involving a different Enbridge pipeline. In 2010, a rupture in the Line 6B pipeline leaked more than 20,000 barrels of oil over 17 hours into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River in Marshall, Mich.
It was among the largest and costliest inland oil spills in U.S. history. The National Transportation Safety Board found that Enbridge had not fixed cracks in the pipeline that it had noticed years earlier.
There have been 33 spills since 1968 along sections of Line 5 that don’t pass through the Straits of Mackinac, according to data Wallace obtained through public records requests.
Patty Peek and her husband built a house in St. Ignace, Mich., near the straits more than a decade ago, but it wasn’t until the 2010 spill that they learned Enbridge had another pipeline nearby.
“The more we read about it, the more concerned we became,” said Peek, chairwoman of the Straits of Mackinac Alliance, a group opposed to the pipeline.
She said a tunnel isn’t good enough.
“The tunnel to us is kind of a diversion from the real problem, which is that in all likelihood the pipeline is not as safe as Enbridge claims it to be,” Peek said.
Juliet Eilperin in Washington contributed to this report.