Jesse Snyder

Published:May 4, 2021

-National Post


OTTAWA — The United States is “highly unlikely” to order the shutdown of a critical cross-border oil pipeline ahead of a looming deadline next week, Canada’s chief negotiator on the file says.

Last November, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer called for the shutdown of Line 5, a crucial conduit that cuts across the Great Lakes and supplies oil and other petroleum products to a major refinery in Ontario. Her directive, which cited concerns over potential oil spills, sought to block the pipeline by May 13.

Canadian officials have been pressing the U.S. on several fronts to ensure the pipeline remains in operation, arguing that a forced shutdown would deeply wound Canada-U.S. relations and crimp supplies of vital products like jet fuel and gasoline to Ontario and Quebec.

But Joe Comartin, Consul General of Canada in Detroit, said the valves are unlikely to be shut off next week as such a move would require a confirmatory order by a federal or state-level judge. The state of Michigan has, meanwhile, entered into official talks with the pipeline operator, Calgary-based Enbridge Inc., and may therefore be hesitant to interfere with the discussions by applying for a court-ordered shutdown.

“It’s highly unlikely that any judge will issue that kind of a confirmatory order at this period,” Comartin said.

Threats to shut down the pipeline have reinforced the heavy energy interdependence between Canada and the U.S., and could complicate relations between the two countries should they fail to reach a settlement on the issue. The U.S. imports roughly 80 per cent of Canada’s total oil output, or 3.7 million barrels per day.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raised Line 5 in a virtual meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden back in February, and several Liberal Cabinet ministers have been in contact with U.S. officials on Line 5. Enbridge has said it would not shut down the line at Michigan’s request and has appealed the order in U.S. federal court.

The federal judge overseeing the dispute tapped Gerald Rosen, the U.S. lawyer who masterminded the $820-million bailout of the city of Detroit, to act as a mediator between the state and Enbridge.

The two parties are set to conclude their third and final round of meetings around the end of this week, and officials are hopeful that an agreement can be reached.

“Our assessment of where the Biden administration is on the issue right now is it’s waiting to see how the federal litigation goes,” Comartin said. He said the Biden team “appears hopeful” that the mediated talks can bring about a resolution “without any need for the federal government to engage.”

Officials at Canada’s embassy in Washington have also been in meetings with State Department officials, Comartin said, in an effort to keep the Biden administration up to date on the issue.

“There’s been extensive contact by Canada with the U.S. federal administration,” he said.

Line 5 currently delivers 540,000 barrels per day of oil and other petroleum products from Superior, Wis., to refineries in Sarnia, Ont. The pipeline is a part of Enbridge’s Mainline system that brings roughly 2.8 million barrels of oil  — more than half of Canada’s total production — from northern Alberta to the U.S. Midwest every day.

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 and others have argued that a shutdown of Line 5 would only place a greater dependence on other forms of transportation that are less safe, equal to 2,000 trucks or 800 rail cars making a one-way trip every day.

Experts on the issue have long said that a complete shutdown of the pipeline is unlikely, particularly because Michigan State would have to prove its jurisdictional right over the federal government to stop the flow of oil.

Still, Canadian officials have readied a number of potential moves should the shutdown be enforced, including a plan to invoke the 1977 Transit Pipelines Treaty, an obscure agreement designed to stop either Canada or the U.S. from impeding the flow of petroleum products.

Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan last month said that the continued operation of Line 5 was “non-negotiable,” and that Canada has been “extremely clear” in its communication with the U.S.

The Michigan order would effectively revoke a 1953 easement that allows Line 5 to cross the Straits of Mackinac, a narrow channel connecting Lake Huron and Lake Michigan.

Governor Whitmer, a Biden ally, has sought to shut down the 70-year-old pipeline over concerns of a potential oil spill that could spoil a crucial Michigan waterway. Her argument echoes concerns raised by environmental groups, who have opposed the operation of aging pipelines even in cases where those pipelines are set to be replaced or converted.

Enbridge plans to build a new tunnel for Line 5 that would burrow beneath the Straits of Mackinac, replacing the current line that rests at the bottom of the lake and

The replacement, according to the company, would greatly reduce the chance of accidents and remove the pipeline from the waterway. The replacement project has received regulatory approval from the U.S. transport department, and is expected to be completed in 2024.