Canada has existing options if Line 5 shuts down, environmental report argues


Published February 16, 2022 at 7:10 am

WASHINGTON — A new report by a Canadian environmental group says alternatives to Line 5 already exist if the controversial cross-border pipeline gets shut down. 

The report, commissioned by Environmental Defence, recommends upgrading Enbridge Inc.’s new Line 78 pipeline to handle most of what Line 5 now delivers to Ontario and Quebec, as well as several Midwestern states. 

The state of Michigan is in court with Enbridge in a bid to shutter Line 5, fearing an ecological disaster in the Straits of Mackinac, where the pipeline crosses the Great Lakes. 

Line 78 extends across the southern part of the state to link Sarnia, Ont., with junctions in northwestern Indiana at the southernmost tip of Lake Michigan, where it connects with existing lines from Superior, Wisc., where Line 5 originates. 

It was completed in 2015 as a replacement upgrade for Line 6B, best known as the pipeline that spilled 3.1 million litres of oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010. 

The report, which acknowledges an ongoing need to supply fossil fuels even amid a transition to renewables, says Line 5’s remaining lost capacity could be handled by a combination of rail and marine tanker.

“The closure of Line 5 is inevitable — either through court order or due to a rupture,” the report says, noting that either outcome would lead to energy shortages throughout the myriad regions and facilities that depend on it for energy.

“A better solution is a planned shutdown where Enbridge, the refineries and governments sort out how best to meet demand without Line 5. What this report clearly demonstrates is that options exist.”

The two sections of Line 78 are currently able to carry 570,000 and 500,000 barrels of oil per day, but could be upgraded to capacities of 800,000 and 525,000 respectively — what the report describes as the “ultimate design” scenario. 

Line 5, by comparison, has a maximum daily capacity of 540,000 barrels, although neither pipeline is currently operating at full strength, the report notes. “This means spare capacity already exists within Line 78 to largely make up for the closure of Line 5.” 

The report says in the “constrained” Line 78 scenario, a Line 5 closure would leave a shortfall of 255,000 barrels per day to be made up elsewhere, while the shortfall shrinks to 119,000 barrels under the expanded-capacity model. 

It estimates that two to three additional trains on routes already transporting oil could handle that additional 119,000 barrels, as could a single additional marine tanker. And it projects a nominal increase in the price of gasoline: 1.8 cents per litre.

“There are going to be tough choices to make as to what is best, but it is entirely possible to meet current demand without Line 5,” the report concludes. “The main takeaway is that there is ample capacity to make up any shortfall that would be caused by a Line 5 closure.”

Meanwhile, the battle between Enbridge and the state of Michigan continues to grind its way through the courts, much of it hinging on esoteric questions of whether the dispute belongs in either federal or county court.  

Enbridge, labour unions and Ottawa all prefer the former option, which is why federal government lawyers filed an amicus brief earlier this month to urge the judge to keep the pipeline operating while it negotiates with the U.S. State Department. 

Officials from both countries met at least once already in mid-December to discuss the terms of a 1977 treaty designed to prevent interruptions to the cross-border flow of oil and gas. Court documents say they planned to gather again in “early 2022.”

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat and close ally of President Joe Biden whose political fortunes depend on the support of environmental groups in the state, ordered the shutdown of Line 5 in November 2020, fearing an ecological disaster in the straits.

Enbridge pushed back hard, arguing that Whitmer and state Attorney General Dana Nessel had overstepped their jurisdiction and that the case needed to be heard in federal court. Late last year, District Court Judge Janet Neff agreed with Enbridge on the issue of jurisdiction.

That’s when Whitmer and Nessel abruptly withdrew their complaint, opting instead to concentrate on a separate but similar circuit court case dormant since 2019. 

The Line 5 pipeline ferries upward of 540,000 barrels per day of crude oil and natural gas liquids across the Canada-U. S. border and the Great Lakes by way of a twin line that runs along the lake bed beneath the straits linking Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

Critics want the line shut down, arguing it’s only a matter of time before an anchor strike or technical failure triggers a catastrophe in one of the area’s most important watersheds.

Proponents call Line 5 a vital and indispensable source of energy, especially propane, for several Midwestern states, including Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. It is also a key source of feedstock for critical refineries on the northern side of the border, including those that supply jet fuel to some of Canada’s busiest airports.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 16, 2022.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

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