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After decades of inaction, Canada is forced to face problems with Line 5 pipeline

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The Straits of Mackinac near the path of Enbridge's Line 5 pipeline. Image credit: Peter K. Burian/Wikimedia Commons

Doesn't Michigan understand that letting jurisdictions along the route of a Canadian pipeline carry the risk of what's inside the pipe while only the province at the start of the line gets to pocket the benefits is a fundamental principle of Confederation?

Surely we established that much during the debate over expanding the Trans Mountain pipeline after 2016 when the province of British Columbia started to argue that it shouldn't have to bear all the risk of the bitumen Trans Mountain's then-American owner, Kinder Morgan Inc. of Texas, planned to ship through the line?

Wasn't it made clear to B.C. that even suggesting they might have an interest in what's flowing through their province was not only unpatriotic, but amounted to ignoring the "rule of law"?

… What did you say?

Michigan's what? … a U.S. state?

Oh. (Pause.)

I don't know about you, but I've never paid a whole lot of attention to Enbridge Line 5. I knew it was there, although exactly where there was wasn't exactly on my radar.

I expect that's the way it is for most Canadians, including most Albertans. If you did a quick telephone survey and asked them to describe the route taken by Line 5, they'd have a better chance of naming the six constituent republics of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Well, here's the thing, Dear Readers. In order to get to Central Canada from the Prairies without going through Northern Ontario, Line 5 takes a shortcut through Wisconsin and Michigan.

Anyone who's driven to Toronto from Winnipeg without crossing the Canadian border understands why this must have seemed like a good idea in 1953 when Line 5 was being built.

Line 5 ends in Sarnia, Ont., a hub for the Canadian petroleum industry, where its contents are used to make a lot of the gasoline used in Ontario and Quebec.

In 1953, the same year as the original Trans Mountain pipeline started pumping, Louis St. Laurent was prime minister of Canada and Dwight Eisenhower was president of the United States. Global warming wasn't on the radar. Pollution was considered a reasonable price of progress.

To cut through Michigan, Line 5 had to cross the Straits of Mackinac, which run between Michigan's Lower and Upper Peninsulas. It's an environmentally sensitive point in one of the greatest reservoirs of fresh water on the planet. The pipeline temporarily splits into two parallel pipes that run across the bottom of the strait, completely exposed, where they've been gashed and dented by anchors.

Who knew that after almost 70 years this would seem like a problem?

Fast forward to last year: the governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer -- the politician Alberta Premier Jason Kenney recently called brain dead, who also happened to be co-chair of U.S. President Joe Biden's campaign committee -- revoked the easement granted in 1953 allowing the crossing. She argued the line presented an oil spill risk, which history suggests is a legitimate concern.

Calgary-based Enbridge points out that the line has never leaked. Michigan argues that the company has repeatedly ignored the terms of the 1953 easement.

Back in 2018, under Whitmer's Republican predecessor, Michigan regulators approved a tunnel to replace the pipes on the bottom of the straits. That project remains subject to challenges. Even if it gets the nod, it will take until 2024 at the earliest to complete.

Enbridge has responded to Michigan's latest moves by vowing it won't stop pumping stuff through the line. American lawyers are arguing over who has jurisdiction. The company doesn't want to tell Michigan what's going through the line.

Pipeline opponents in Michigan have created an effective and emotional campaign about protecting fresh water and wildlife in "a natural and cultural treasure held by Michigan in trust for its residents." They say that if there were a leak, it would threaten the drinking water of 40 million people. They accurately point out that most of the product shipped through Line 5 is just shortcutting its way back to Canada, with little benefit to their state.

The line will have to shut down in May if Whitmer gets her way. Canadian politicians are starting to freak out.

Federal Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole, sensing an opportunity, had an op-ed published in the National Post yesterday claiming the Trudeau government isn't doing enough to keep the line open. He claims 6,500 jobs in Sarnia are on the line, which could be true.

"There has been no concerted pan-Canadian effort to advocate with the governors of Wisconsin or Michigan," he complained, ignoring Kenney's unhelpful comment about Whitmer.

I can't tell you the solution to this mess, but it strikes me as typical of the Canadian oil industry and the Canadian governments that have benefitted from it. We've had nearly 70 years to realize there might be a problem and do something about it. Nothing seems to have happened until a couple of years ago.

For at least 20 years -- long enough for a young Canadian to come of age and be able to legally buy a beer -- this should have been obvious.

Instead of trying to come up with a solution, or even a Plan B, we spent years insisting the line was safe, insulted or patronized American politicians who were worried about it, and belligerently demanded more of the same. Some of our conservative politicians went south to campaign for people like Donald Trump.

When Enbridge did come up with a plan, it sure sounds as if it was too little, too late.

Here in Alberta, Premier Kenney has even used Enbridge's problems with Michigan to prop up his baseless conspiracy theory about Americans trying to landlock Alberta oil.

Well, the chickens are coming home to roost. The guy now in the White House isn't likely to be very sympathetic. A lot of shaggy Canadian pandemic haircuts are in flames.

Anyone have a better suggestion than a trade war with the United States that we'd be sure to lose?

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image credit: Peter K. Burian/Wikimedia Commons

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