A court decision in Michigan could have major implications for the energy security of Ontario and Quebec. Last week, a Michigan judge ordered the temporary shutdown of Enbridge’s Line 5 oil pipeline that runs from Superior, Wisconsin to refineries in Sarnia, Ontario.
Shutting down Line 5 has serious implications, for residents of Ontario and Quebec, as well as Michigan itself. Line 5 transports 540,000 barrels per day of oil and natural gas liquids into the Sarnia area (about half of the pipeline capacity to Ontario). Facing a potential supply cut, anxiety has been rising in southern Ontario. If Line 5 is shut down the lack of supply and Ontario’s returning demand for refined products could have a drastic effect on gasoline prices in the region.
Jon Harding, an Imperial Oil spokesperson noted that “Reducing rates will likely result in shortfalls of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel in our distribution points in southern Ontario. That would happen within approximately a week”. Quebec could also be affected and see rising prices in the area. Enbridge predicts a shortage of about 45% for these products in the region. This will risk rationing and higher prices for commuters and transport for an economy already hard hit.
It is these kinds of scenarios that put a very energy-rich country like Canada in a position where it is no longer energy secure. As energy expert Peter Tertzakian noted early this year, we could end up in a situation like the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, where we had to import our own oil using tankers and the Panama Canal. In a country that is the 4th largest producer of crude oil in the world, it is poor policy that leaves us with energy supply risks.
Line 5 runs 1038 kilometers from Superior, Wisconsin to Sarnia, Ontario. The pipeline has been around for 67 years without incident. It runs underwater across the Straits of Mackinac in Michigan, which is one of the reasons it has been highly contested by the current Michigan Governor and Attorney General. However, the pipeline splits into two smaller, stronger pipes called the west and east wing under the straits. These pipes are made with thicker metal and a smaller diameter to reduce the risks of a leak or anchor strike.
For the last few years, Enbridge has been trying to replace the pipeline with a newer one. They want to encase it in a concrete tunnel to ensure that in a worst-case scenario, they would be able to contain a leak. Despite these plans to replace the current pipeline, the Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel have continued to fight against the company.
The suspension of Line 5 operations comes after the pipeline company notified federal regulators that and anchor point had shifted on a section of the eastern leg of pipeline that runs under the Straits of Mackinac. They immediately shut both sides down to evaluate the situation. Upon completing their inspection, Enbridge found that the western portion was able to continue operating after consulting with the federal safety regulators. The eastern portion continued to remain closed until further discussion with state officials.
Despite the precautions taken by Enbridge, the Attorney General filed an injunction with Ingham County to halt all operations. Judge James Jamo ruled to temporarily suspend operations until a hearing on June 30th, 2020.
This is not the first time Michigan officials have tried to shut down this pipeline. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel had been working together to kill Line 5 since before they were elected. Last year, Attorney General Nessel filed a public nuisance lawsuit against Enbridge after striking down Enbridge’s lawsuit to enforce agreements made with the previous administration. She lost and is in the process of appealing. AG Dana Nessel is involved with a program through NYU’s law school, funded by Michael Bloomberg, which funds special assistant attorney generals around the country for the purpose of bringing environmental litigation. She’s currently fighting requests for documents related to her involvement in the program.
It appears the moves by the Attorney General and Governor to kill Line 5 goes against the will of the house of representatives in Michigan. Recently, there was an overwhelming vote in favor of the timely issuing of permits for Line 5’s replacement and the Great Lakes Tunnel Project. In an 80-28 vote including 46% of Michigan House Democrats, the House voted in favor, against the Governor. Enbridge also recently received approval from the Michigan Court of Appeals to build the utility tunnel to support the new pipeline. An earlier ruling from the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed the emergency response for the pipeline to be adequate to protect wildlife in the Straits of Mackinac.
Ohio’s Attorney General and Lieutenant Governor also see the benefits of the pipeline. On Monday June 29th, AG Yost and the Attorney Generals of Indiana and Louisiana filed an 11-page brief discussing the negative impacts of shutting down Line 5.
From the outcome of these decisions, the Attorney General and Governor’s Office do not seem to care about court rulings and regulatory approval, they are simply playing politics. The new pipeline and utility tunnel were all approved under the previous administration of Governor Rick Snyder. In November 2019, the courts in Michigan upheld the agreements. However, as one could imagine, this did not sit well for environmental groups like Oil and Water Don’t Mix who have been vehement supporters of the Governor and Attorney General’s crusade against Line 5.
This fight is also not about petroleum itself, but about the pipeline. Attorney General Nessel has previously suggested that oil be transported by rail and trucks. These methods have their own safety concerns. Oil by those means will also only be able to make up for 10% or less of that drop in supply.
If the shutdown becomes indefinite, this will be a major issue for Canada’s energy security and cause problems for refiners and citizens on both sides of the border.
Cody Ciona is the Research and Issues Coordinator for the Canadian Energy Network