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Canadians who rely on Line 5 on edge as Michigan’s deadline looms to shut Enbridge pipeline

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Canadian workers and others who benefit from Enbridge’s Line 5 are anxiously watching what’s playing out this week in Michigan, which has given the Calgary-based company until Wednesday to shut down the pipeline.

While backed by Indigenous groups, decommissioning the pipeline would cut off a major source of fuel for Ontario and Quebec. For its part, Enbridge insisted to CBC News on Wednesday that it won’t halt operations unless forced by a court to do so.

That’s little comfort to people in the border city of Sarnia in southwestern Ontario.

“You want to provide for your family and give them everything they could possibly want or need in life, and this does put that in jeopardy,” said steam fitter James Williamson. “[It] is something that does make you a little uneasy and I think everybody in the community is feeling that right now.”

The pipeline carries some 540,000 barrels of Canadian crude oil and other petroleum products per day across Wisconsin and Michigan to Sarnia, and accounts for nearly half of the supply of light crude oil, light synthetic crude oil and natural gas liquids in Ontario and Quebec.

Canadians who rely on Line 5 on edge as Michigan's deadline looms to shut Enbridge pipeline
The Line 5 pipeline carries Canadian petroleum from Western Canada and Wisconsin, though Michigan to Sarnia, Ont. (CBC)

The U.S.-Canada clash stems from an objection by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan to a specific part of the 65-year-old pipeline, which runs across the environmentally sensitive Straits of Mackinac, just south of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., that link Lake Michigan to Lake Huron.

Governor calls Line 5 ‘ticking time bomb’

In a move applauded by environmentalists and Indigenous groups in both Canada and the U.S., in November, Michigan revoked an easement granted from 1953 that’s allowed Enbridge to run the pipeline across the straits.

Whitmer also ordered the company to shut down the nearly 70-year-old pipeline by May 12, 2021, saying “the devastating economic, environmental and health impacts of a catastrophic oil spill in the Great lakes” can’t be risked. She referred to the pipeline as “a ticking time bomb”.

If you just drive by any business in town and look out the window, you can expect it to disappear if Line 5 does.– Scott Archer, UA Local 663 representing Sarnia pipefitters and plumbers

Enbridge, which maintains the pipeline is safe, launched a lawsuit in a U.S. federal district court shortly after the governor’s order, and is still in mediation with the government.

In a statement Wednesday to CBC, the company reiterated it won’t stop operating the pipeline unless ordered to do so by a court or regulator, “which we view as highly unlikely.” 

Canadians who rely on Line 5 on edge as Michigan's deadline looms to shut Enbridge pipeline
James Williamson, a steam fitter in Sarnia, says he and others would likely leave the city if the pipeline’s work stops. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

For his part, Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley feels confident the pipeline won’t shut down.

“There may be some political histrionics that day from Michigan and the governor, but I believe that with discussions underway about mediation and other possible actions that may take place, I don’t believe the line will shut down.”

Last week, Enbridge’s senior vice-president, Mike Fernandez, told the CBC that Michigan’s deadline is more likely to prompt protests than state action. 

Scott Archer, of UA Local 663, the union that represents 1,600 plumbers and pipefitters in Sarnia, has hopes a decision on the pipeline goes in “a rational direction” instead of being led by emotion.

“I understand people’s good intentions, but many of these people need to do a little deeper dive into the information and see that the alternative to this is disastrous.”

Canadians who rely on Line 5 on edge as Michigan's deadline looms to shut Enbridge pipeline
Scott Archer, union rep with UA Local 663 representing pipefitters and plumbers in Sarnia, Ont., says thousands of workers rely on the pipeline both directly and indirectly for employment. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

Archer said thousands of jobs in Sarnia, both directly and indirectly connected to the pipeline, would be affected by a shutdown.

“They’re not going to be ordering pizzas, they’re not going to be buying new shoes, they’re not going to be investing in real estate,” he said about people in the city of about 71,000.

It’s amazing that you can have the federal government of Canada who is committed to climate action, yet they seem to be the biggest proponent and the biggest advocate for pipeline, for oil and gas pipelines.​​​​​​– Bean Deleary, Anishinaabe educator, Walpole Island First Nation 

“If you just drive by any business in town and look out the window, you can expect it to disappear if Line 5 does,” said Archer. 

Williamson, who was born and raised in Sarnia, said halting the pipeline would turn the border city into a retirement community and families would leave, and even he would consider that. 

“It’s about providing for your kids and the sacrifices you have to make to ensure that they get the best shake at life.”

Indigenous disappointment 

In March, federal Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan said operation of the pipeline is non-negotiable, and the government would do whatever it takes to keep it running. In the House last week, he reiterated his support for Line 5, saying it would take 800 rail cars and 2,000 trucks in Canada alone to move an equivalent amount of petroleum products in a day.

Indigenous and environmental groups, however, have severely criticized the Canadian government for supporting Line 5. 

Canadians who rely on Line 5 on edge as Michigan's deadline looms to shut Enbridge pipeline
Danny Deleary, an Anishinaabe educator and activist who lives on Ontario’s Walpole Island First Nation, has been critical of the Canadian government’s support of Line 5. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

“It’s amazing that you can have the federal government of Canada who is committed to climate action, yet they seem to be the biggest proponent and the biggest advocate for pipeline, for oil and gas pipelines,” said Bean Deleary, an Anishinaabe educator and activist who lives on Canada’s Walpole Island First Nation, on the Ontario-Michigan border.

“Water is essential and clean water is essential to life, and why we would risk the largest sources of fresh water in the world? Why would we potentially risk that in the name of profit?”

Push for energy alternatives

Dean Sayers, the chief of Ontario’s Batchewana First Nation, which is near the Straits of Mackinac, also sides with Whitmer.

“What happens at the Mackinac straits will have an effect on all of the people that live in that watershed downstream from there, so it’s really important for all my relatives around the Great Lakes that we have access to that really pristine Great Lakes water,” said Sayers. 

“I think it’s important for us to maybe find alternative ways to look after our energy needs, and I’m not so sure fossil fuels are the way to go.”

Canadians who rely on Line 5 on edge as Michigan's deadline looms to shut Enbridge pipeline
Dean Sayers, chief of Batchewana First Nation, near the Straits of Mackinac, believes it’s important ‘to find alternative ways to look after our energy needs, and I’m not so sure fossil fuels are the way to go.’ (Erik White/CBC )

Some have suggested that Canada will look to a treaty it signed with the U.S. in the 1970s that seems to guarantee the uninterrupted transit of hydrocarbons across the border.

Glen Hare, grand chief of the Anishinabek Nation Council, which advocates for First Nations across Ontario, last week accused the government of picking and choosing which treaties to uphold based on convenience and profit. 

“The government of Canada is not upholding the treaties made with the First Nations, but will uphold the 1977 treaty for pipelines,” he said in a statement.

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