Canadian minister: Keeping Line 5 open is 'non-negotiable'

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The Canadian government is doubling down on efforts to stop Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's attempt to shut down Line 5, with a cabinet member of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's administration vowing the continued operation of the pipeline is "non-negotiable."

The Canadian government won't let Michigan shut down the Line 5 pipeline, Canada's natural resources minister Seamus O'Regan told a parliamentary panel last week. The 4-mile-long dual pipeline that runs under the Straits of Mackinac is part of a longer pipeline that transports oil and natural gas liquids from Canada through Wisconsin and Michigan into Sarnia, Ontario.

"We are fighting for Line 5 on every front and we are confident in that fight," O'Regan told a special House of Commons committee on the relationship between Canada and the United States, according to the Canadian Press.

Seamus O'Regan, left, the current Canadian natural resources minister and former veterans affairs minister, walks with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, center, during a trip to France in 2018. Accompanying them is Canadian Ambassador to France Isabelle Hudon.

Line 5 carries about 540,000 barrels of light crude originating in Alberta and Western Canada through Superior, Wisconsin into the Upper Peninsula, down through the Straits of Mackinac and then east to Sarnia. It also carries natural gas liquids that serve as a propane source to the Upper Peninsula and lower Michigan after it is processed in Sarnia.

"We are fighting on a diplomatic front, and we are preparing to invoke whatever measures we need to in order to make sure that Line 5 remains operational," O'Regan said. "The operation of Line 5 is non-negotiable."

About 1.3 million jobs generating $82 billion in wages across the United States are supported by the Great Lakes and threatened by the risk of an oil spill in the Straits, Whitmer's office said in a Tuesday statement. 

"These oil pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac are a ticking time bomb, and their continued presence violates the public trust and poses a grave threat to Michigan's environment and economy," Whitmer's office said. "The governor fully stands behind her decision to revoke and terminate the 1953 easement, while securing Michigan’s energy needs.”

Attorney General Dana Nessel's office said Tuesday it remained confident in the state's legal authority "to address issues that pose a threat to our environment."

"A major part of our role is protecting one of our most crucial natural resources — the Great Lakes, which should also be a concern for Canada," Nessel spokesman Ryan Jarvi said. "An oil spill in the Straits of Mackinac would devastate the environment and jeopardize the regional economy, and that threat persists each day Line 5 remains in our waterways."

The Toronto Globe and Mail called O'Regan's comment "the strongest language the federal government has used to date" in a dispute that is poised to test the relationship of Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden.

The provinces of Quebec and Ontario, which is across the river from Detroit, would lose thousands of jobs and energy if the 68-year-old pipeline were closed in the wake of Whitmer's November revocation of the pipeline's easement, officials argued. A Canadian mayor suggested it could set off Canadian trade retaliation.

These officials have been besieging the Trudeau administration to make their case to Biden and Whitmer. 

Michigan environmental officials have acknowledged receiving letters urging a reversal in policy from almost every province in Canada, “if not every province,” a state environmental department spokesman told The Detroit News more than a month ago.

Officials have asked Trudeau to invoke a 1977 agreement between President Jimmy Carter and Trudeau’s father, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, that put limits on transit pipeline actions that may harm energy supply in either country.

But Canada's chances at the federal level appear to have dimmed since Biden canceled permits for the Keystone XL oil pipeline over Trudeau's objections. 

Whitmer and  Nessel have argued that the dual pipeline poses too great of a risk of rupture, which would pollute lakes Michigan and Huron as well as the shoreline and surrounding aquatic life. It is an argument shared by most environmentalists, who have lobbied for the shutdown that the governor hopes to execute by May.

"This is not a secret," Nessel said a month ago, noting she and Whitmer ran on promises to close the line.

"I can't imagine what they could say, I can’t imagine what they could offer that would possibly change my mind in terms of the grave risk that Line 5 poses," the attorney general told The News about Canadian officials.

O'Regan told the parliamentary committee that he talked last week to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, the former Michigan governor, about Line 5 and Biden's cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline project, the Canadian Press reported.

Enbridge, which owns Line 5, has also expressed confidence that it would prevail in court against Whitmer and Nessel, who has pursued separate litigation besides representing the governor.

A facility near the Suncor Energy Products in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada, shot from Port Huron across the St. Clair River, Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021.

Environmentalists have worried about the catastrophic effects a leak in the straits would have on the Great Lakes. In 2010, Enbridge's Line 6B leaked in Marshall, causing one of the largest inland oil spills in American history.

After years of debate over Line 5's future, Republican former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder in late 2018 reached a deal with the company to construct a $500 million tunnel beneath the straits to house a new replacement segment of Line 5. When Enbridge said it couldn't meet Whitmer's demand to build the tunnel in two years instead of four years, the governor moved to revoke the easement.

Enbridge has denied it is out of compliance with its easement and said it will not shutter the line. The company filed suit in federal court, arguing the federal pipeline safety agency had jurisdiction over the line, not the state of Michigan.