Enbridge Line 5 Lives! (For Now)

Tom Finnerty29 Jan, 2021 2 Min Read
A victory for the good guys.

Some unexpected good news: Michigan's Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy has approved construction of an underground tunnel to house a replacement for Enbridge Line 5 which transports roughly 540,000 barrels of petroleum products per day from Superior, Wis., to refineries in Sarnia, Ont.

This is surprising because the general expectation was that Joe Biden's decision to kill the Keystone XL pipeline extension is just an opening salvo in the new administration's war on energy. After all, there is no obvious limiting principle to Biden's rationale for killing Keystone. The pipeline had failed no environmental review, and TC Energy, which owns the pipeline, has satisfactorily responded to every legitimate concern of governments and environmentalist groups on both sides of the border.

What Keystone XL would do is facilitate the safe transport of fossil fuels, and that is what made it a target. This was clearly articulated in Biden's executive order, which offered no justification for revoking Keystone's construction permit beyond the necessity to "prioritize the development of a clean energy economy." If that's the governing logic, no pipelines are safe.

Enbridge Line 5 seemed the next theater of conflict because, as Joan Sammon discussed in a recent piece, there's already an ongoing crusade against it, spearheaded by Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer. Here's the background, as described by Sammon:

Whitmer, a Democrat, took legal action against Canadian pipeline operator, Enbridge, revoking a 67-year old-easement to extend an approximately four mile underwater section of the pipeline that runs through the Straits of Mackinac.

Whitmer's argument is that the section of pipeline which runs underwater between Michigan and Ontario would endanger the Great Lakes should it leak, and thus she must act. The pipeline, which has been in operation since 1953, has never had a significant leak; indeed, Enbridge had already preemptively addressed this problem, planning a new section of pipe to be laid beneath the riverbed with the object of safeguarding the straits.

Construction approval has been slow, in part because of the change in administration in Michigan -- initial approval for the project had been granted by former governor Rick Snyder, a Republican. But following the 2018 election subsequent permits have to be granted by Whitmer appointees.

The Canadian position regarding Line 5 is that a shutdown would be disastrous. According to the National Post,

[It] would cut off nearly half of the crude oil it needs to make petroleum products such as gasoline. All of the jet fuel used at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport is made in Sarnia, and distributed through Line 5. It also carries propane used to heat homes in northern Michigan and Ontario, and supports thousands of jobs on both sides of the border.

Enbridge has refused to comply with Whitmer's order, arguing that the governor has no jurisdiction to shutdown a pipeline approved by the federal government.

The approval of Michigan's energy department -- which determined "the project would have 'minimal impact' on water quality and wetlands" -- is significant, but Line 5 isn't in the clear yet. The project still requires the approval of the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Michigan Public Service Commission, whose members have all been appointed by Whitmer, must grant approval for the pipeline to actually be put into the new tunnel.

Still, in the current hostile environment Enbridge will take any good news it can get.

Tom Finnerty writes from New England and Ontario.

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