Column: Why do Canadians seem to care so little about protecting the Great Lakes from Line 5?
Line 5 “eviction notice,” delivered by activists to Enbridge’s pumping station in Mackinaw City on May 12, 2021 | Laina G. Stebbins
As a Canadian living in Michigan, I’ve never seen a state or province that identifies with the Great Lakes the way Michigan does: their silhouette adorns T-shirts, water bottles, and bumper stickers everywhere.
At the same time, I would say that the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence system is woven into the nationalisms and founding mythologies of the Canadian nation-state, especially in central Canada, in a way that isn’t true of the United States. You might even say that the Great Lakes are in the DNA of the territory now called Canada.
The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River are the historic Canadian heartland — the equivalent of the East Coast of the United States. All three founding nations of Canada (Indigenous, British and French) crowded the shores of these sweetwater seas and the St. Lawrence River. Nowadays, the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin hosts the political, financial, and industrial hubs of Canada, and about half the country’s population.
But if the Great Lakes are so important to Canadians, why do they seem to care so little about protecting them? Specifically, I’m talking about Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline.
Line 5, a hydrocarbon pipeline, runs through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, across the state’s venerated Straits of Mackinac, and then through lower Michigan to Sarnia, Ontario. Built nearly 70 years ago, and in a deteriorating condition, Line 5 daily transports about 23 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids from the Canadian West.
Line 5 is a ticking time bomb, especially at the Straits, where Enbridge is proposing a tunnel for this decaying and dangerous dual pipeline — but if you read the fine print, it will take a decade to build and taxpayers will be on the hook for the risky endeavor.
In November 2020, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer revoked the 1953 easement granted to the Lakehead Pipe Line, now Enbridge, for the Straits crossing. Enbridge ignored the Governor’s May 12 deadline to shut down Line 5, with backing from the Canadian government, and the matter was sent for mediation. But in early September, the state of Michigan moved to break off this “unproductive” dialogue.
On October 4, 2021, the Canadian government officially invoked a bilateral 1977 Pipeline Transit Treaty that applies to pipelines that cross from one country into the other and back. Whitmer said she was “profoundly disappointed” with the Trudeau government. And she should be, since Ottawa is essentially shilling for a private oil company.
In any case, the 1977 treaty is a diplomatic agreement not to interfere with or levy any fees or duties on hydrocarbons that are already flowing — “in transit” to use the treaty language — and should have no applicability on the bigger question of whether a state or province wants a foreign pipeline in their territory. In other words, the intention of this treaty was not to stop a state (or province) from exercising its sovereignty over its own public waters or deciding whether or not to revoke permission for a foreign pipeline crossing its territory; the point was to stop an arbitrary or gouging bait-and-switch where a political jurisdiction acting as the middle man gives consent to a pipeline and then jacks up the price.
Many Canadians have been boisterously loud about stopping new and existing pipelines within Canada. But why are Canadians so seemingly ignorant, or ambivalent, about Line 5? A major reason is certainly that most of the fossil fuels sent through Line 5 ends up in Ontario and Quebec. Of course, Canada is also a type of petro-state, addicted to the profits and efficiencies of fossil fuels; many have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
But the status quo is going to end in disaster. Canada is a climate villain, marching itself and the rest of the world to “global weirding.” Backing the likes of Enbridge is not only bad for the planet, it is bad economics.
A recent report stated that close to 85% of Canada’s fossil fuels need to stay in the ground if the country wants to have a decent chance of meeting the 1.5 degree Celsius goal in the Paris Agreement. According to another analysis, building the Line 5 tunnel and continuing the pipeline could contribute an additional 27 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere annually, generating $41 billion in climate damages between 2027 and 2070.
Those climate damages are going to haunt Canada as well as the U.S. Moreover, the models show that a Line 5 spill at the Straits of Mackinac would likely flow into the Canadian part of Lake Huron. Enbridge’s track record doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. I live and teach in Kalamazoo, where in 2010 Enbridge’s Line 6B had a catastrophic failure into the eponymous river. A pipeline rupture would be all but impossible to rectify quickly in the Straits when there is ice cover in winter.
Just imagine how Canadians would react if the situation were reversed, and the U.S. refused to stop a pipeline that a province didn’t want. Moreover, if Canada is serious about reconciliation, it needs to stop pipelines. Many pipelines in Canada threaten the territories of numerous bands and First Nations, often without their consent and in conflict with the spirit of treaties and agreements.
There are alternatives for getting energy to the areas of Canada served by Line 5. These can be used in the short-term. But, make no mistake, the goal here is not to just shift fossil fuels to a different pipeline. The end game is an energy transition, and a just one at that. In the long run, stopping Line 5, and other pipelines, could actually be doing Canadians a favor: weaning them off of fossil fuels and their infrastructure and protecting the Great Lakes and the climate. What could be more neighborly?
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