Between Oil And Water: The Issue With Enbridge’s Line 5

Two pipelines have been lying at the bottom of the Great Lakes for six decades. Carrying more than half a million barrels of oil and natural gas liquids every day, Enbridge Inc.’s Line 5 runs from Superior, Wisconsin to Sarnia, Ontario. The pipeline passes under the environmentally sensitive Straits of Mackinac—a narrow waterway that connects Lakes Michigan to Lake Huron. The Strait has shallow water, strong currents, and extreme weather conditions (becoming frozen during winter). If a pipe were to rupture, the oil would reach shorelines, accumulate, and jeopardize Great Lakes Michigan and Huron’s ecology. Citing environmental concerns, Michigan state officials have demanded that the Canadian company close Line 5.


Petroleum reaches Line 5 from Western Canada. Starting in Superior, Wisconsin, Line 5 travels east through Wisconsin to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The pipeline runs along the shore of Lake Michigan until it reaches the Straits of Mackinac. Here, the pipeline splits into two, and each is 20 inches (51 centimetres) in diameter. The lines reunite on the southern side of the straits. The pipeline continues south, crossing the border and terminating in Sarnia, Ontario. The oil and natural gas liquids in Line 5 feed refineries in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Ontario, and Quebec.


Conscious of environmental concerns, on 13 November 2020, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer demanded that Enbridge halt oil flow through the pipeline within 180 days. A 2016 study by the University of Michigan found that more than 700 miles (or roughly 1,100 kilometres) of shoreline in Lakes Michigan and Huron would be compromised by a Line 5 rupture. The Graham Sustainability Institute used computer imaging to model how the oil potentially could spread. According to their findings, the most significant risk areas include the Bois Blanc Islands, places on the north shore of the Straits, and Mackinaw City. Communities at risk include Beaver Island, Cross Village, Harbor Springs, Cheboygan, and other areas of the shoreline. A pipeline rupture would quickly contaminate Lakes Michigan and Huron’s shorelines and would involve an extensive cleanup.


Enbridge claims Line 5 is in good condition and has never leaked in the past. However, Enbridge has a checkered past when it comes to oil spills. In 2010 an Enbridge pipeline ruptured in the Kalamazoo River (also located in Michigan) and spilled roughly 1 million gallons of crude oil. The spill went undetected for 18 hours, and the United States Department of Transportation fined Enbridge USD 3.7 million. It is one of the largest land-based oil spills in American history. An investigation found the cause of the pipeline breach to be corrosion fatigue due to ageing pipelines. Alarmingly, the pipeline that runs through the Straits of Mackinac is 15 years older than the pipeline that burst in the Kalamazoo River. Additionally, this is not the only time an Enbridge pipeline has leaked oil. Between 1999 and 2013, there have been 1,068 Enbridge oil spills involving 7.4 million gallons of oil.


Despite this history, Enbridge is refusing to comply with the demands of Michigan. On 24 November 2020, Enbridge took legal recourse and brought the case to the U.S. federal court. Enbridge argues that the state has overstepped its jurisdiction. The company also asserts that they not answerable to state overseers, only the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration. Legal analysts point out that the courts are typically hesitant to shutdown operating pipelines and have not often done so in the past. Enbridge is likely to cite precedents in an appeal if the court rules in favour of the state.


“[Enbridge’s lawsuit] brazenly defies the people of Michigan and their right to protect the Great Lakes from a catastrophic oil spill,” said Tiffany Brown, a spokesperson for Michigan governor Whitmer. “In short, Enbridge claims it can continue to pump oil through the Straits of Mackinac indefinitely, posing an enormous risk to our economy and way of life—and that the people of Michigan have no say in the matter,” Brown continued.


A city of roughly 70,000, the economy of Sarnia, Ontario relies heavily upon the petrochemical industry. If Line 5 were to shut down, Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley estimates that at least 3,000 jobs in three refineries across the city would be affected and numerous positions in adjacent industries. Workers in Sarnia fear the loss of work. Bradley has written to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Minister of Natural Resources Seamus O’Regan, urging them to appeal to U.S. President Joe Biden. In early February, O’Reagan penned a letter espousing Bradley’s concerns. Canadian federal Conservatives also advocate for keeping Line 5 open, citing job loss and economic strain.


“We continue to advocate for Line 5 to remain in operation while recognizing and respecting the sensitivity of the issue to the State of Michigan and the importance of furthering a constructive dialogue with the new United States administration,” O’Regan’s letter stated.


The Great Lakes contain six quadrillion gallons of freshwater—20% of Earth’s fresh surface water. More than 48 million people in the United States and Canada rely on the Great Lakes for drinking water. Many communities sustain livelihoods on the shores of Lakes Michigan and Huron. It makes little sense to put the life, health, and well-being of these communities at risk. Although the global economy is slowly phasing out petrochemical reliance, oil can still reach south-eastern Canada and north-eastern America via pipelines that pose less of a threat to the communities surrounding them. Redirecting oil routes might be expensive for Enbridge, but it would spare the job loss Sarnia fears. A solution must exist; the environmental and human cost of Line 5 remaining operational is far too great.

Jaclyn Pahl


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