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Enbridge Defies Michigan Order, Line 5 Pipeline Dispute Continues Despite Passed Deadline

Published: June 5, 2021
Enbridge and opposing parties are engaged in disputes over the company’s decision to continue Line 5 pipeline operations.
Enbridge and opposing parties are engaged in disputes over the company’s decision to continue Line 5 pipeline operations. (Image: jotoya via Pixabay CC0 1.0)

A deadline to suspend operations of Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline, imposed by Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI), has come and gone, leaving the controversial pipeline still operating and in legal limbo.

Energy giant Enbridge, headquartered in Calgary, Alberta, had until May 12 to comply. The pipeline moves 540,000 barrels per day of crude and natural gas liquids from the western Canadian oil fields eastward towards the Great Lakes region.

The dispute erupted last November when Whitmer cancelled an easement, signed in 1953, permitting Enbridge to construct and operate the pipeline that runs through the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron connect.

Whitmer stated in an opinion article, “The two aging, 4.5-mile sections of underwater pipeline are a ticking time bomb. I’m taking every action I can to shut them down, to protect two Great Lakes and the jobs that depend on them.”

The governor referenced two historic oil spills that “alerted millions of Americans to the enormous potential dangers.” BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig failure in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 and Enbridge’s Kalamazoo River oil spill near Marshall, Michigan the same year garnered worldwide attention.

The Kalamazoo incident has been described as “one of the largest inland oil spills in U.S. history.” After the two catastrophic spills, attention shifted to the two 4.5-mile sections of the Line 5 pipeline that run underwater through the two Great Lakes.

In May, a spokesperson for Enbridge said they will “not stop operating the pipeline” except in the unlikely scenario they “are ordered by a court or our regulator” to do so. 

‘Massive and potentially permanent blow’

Justin Trudeau’s federal government has endorsed the continued operation of the pipeline, stating that a shutdown would deal a “massive and potentially permanent” blow to Canada’s economy and energy security.

Furthermore, the move could significantly damage relations between the U.S. and Canada. The pipeline supports an estimated 5,000 direct jobs in Sarnia, Ontario, and an additional 23,000 adjacent jobs throughout the region in both countries.

Scott Archer, a business agent with a pipefitters union in Sarnia, stated that the impact of a pipeline shutdown would be “astronomical,” and that the “town would essentially dry up and blow away,” reported Global News.

However, Whitmer is not alone in asserting that the pipeline should be permanently shut down. “Twenty-eight entities – including 16 states and the District of Columbia, four Native American Tribes, six environmental organizations and the Great Lakes Business Network” all support ending operations, according to a press release by the Michigan State Attorney General.

Enbridge remains steadfast, asserting that the pipeline is safe. “We monitor the Line 5 Straits crossing 24/7, using both specially trained staff and sophisticated computer monitoring systems. We also carry out regular inspections of the line, using inline tools, expert divers, and remote operating vehicles (ROVs), going above and beyond regulatory requirements.”

Economic concerns

Enbridge stated that “Line 5 has operated without incident at the Straits of Mackinac for more than 65 years” and delivers “65% of the propane that heats Upper Peninsula homes, and 55% of Michigan’s propane needs.” Whitmer contested that “While Enbridge says its pipelines pose no threat, the record from just the past few years says otherwise.”

In April 2008, a commercial vessel inadvertently dragged an anchor across the pipelines while passing through the Straits. An “underwater pipeline inspection video shows deep scoring along the lake bottom, then up and over the twin pipelines,” reported the Detroit Free Press after the incident.

In 2020, Enbridge disclosed another anchor strike on the underwater pipeline, which caused significant damage to one of the pipeline’s supports. Whitmer believes that the potential costs of a major oil spill in the area would threaten “more than 1.3 million jobs that generate $82 billion in wages annually across the United States.”

With the passed deadline, Whitmer has stated that Michigan “would make every effort to disgorge the company of all profits unjustly earned from Line 5 while trespassing on state land.” She added, “running pipelines through the water of the Great Lakes is, and always has been, a dangerous threat. I will not sit idle as this time bomb keeps ticking.”

Despite continued talks and the addition of mediator and retired U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen, which Enbridge described as a “positive step,” the two parties remain deeply entrenched.