Canada invokes 1977 pipeline treaty with U.S. to prevent Line 5 shutdown

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Canada is formally enforcing a 1977 pipeline treaty with the United States to prevent Michigan from shutting down taps in Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline.

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Foreign Minister Marc Garneau said in a statement on Monday that the Transit Pipeline Treaty “guarantees the seamless transit of light crude oil and natural gas liquids between the two countries.”

Line 5 carries 540,000 barrels of light crude oil and natural gas liquids between Wisconsin and Sarnia, Ont., which the company and other backers say are a significant energy source in the US Midwest, as well as Ontario and Quebec.

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But about a year ago, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer revoked an easement granted to the pipeline in 1953 that allowed it to run through the Strait of Mackinac, a water body connecting Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

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Citing potentially catastrophic environmental consequences if the aging pipeline breaks down, Whitmer gave Enbridge six months to shut off the flow. Enbridge challenged the order in court, and the two sides have been engaged in court-ordered arbitration talks for months.

Those talks are now at a standstill, with Michigan indicating last month that it had no desire to continue.

Canada had already argued in a brief presented in court last spring that the case should be set aside to allow Canada and the United States to negotiate a solution under the Transit Pipeline Treaty.

Mediation negotiations are no longer proceeding, with Canada formally requesting to begin the treaty’s dispute process, and its attorney asking a US federal judge to halt further court proceedings pending the outcome of the treaty negotiations.

“In response to Michigan’s efforts to close Line 5, Canada has increased its importance to Canada’s economic and energy security at the highest levels of the US federal government,” Garneau said.

“We have also emphasized the importance of fully respecting and implementing the international agreements that are signed between our two countries.”

The dispute mechanism first calls for dialogue between the two federal governments. If they fail, either party can request binding arbitration, a process that may take only six months to establish arbitrators.

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Whitmer said in a statement that he was “extremely disappointed” by Canada’s move, and asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to reverse the decision. She said she expected more from Canada, “a nation that prides itself on its commitment to environmental protection” and accused it of succumbing to the bid of the company responsible for the 2010 oil spill in the Kalamazoo River.

The rupture of Enbridge’s Line 6B spilled more than 3.8 million liters of diluted bitumen into the river in one of the largest inland oil spills the US has ever seen.

“I am confident that Michigan will prevail in its legal efforts regarding Line 5 regardless of today’s action, and I will continue to struggle to get the pipelines out of the water,” Whitmer said.

Canadian environmental groups were on Whitmer’s side.

Michelle Woodhouse, water program manager at Environmental Defense, said the pipeline “poses an unacceptable threat to the Great Lakes”, including the way of life of indigenous peoples in the region. She also said that Canada has not done the research to prove the real importance of the pipeline to Ontario and Quebec.

“Yet Canada is unequivocally accepting Enbridge’s claims about this dangerous pipeline, while minimizing the risks it poses to the Great Lakes and the climate,” she said. “We know alternatives exist – an independent analysis shows that the existing pipeline system has the potential to meet most of the region’s energy needs without Line 5.”

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Ontario Premier Doug Ford supported the Canadian move, as did Enbridge. In a statement the company said the pipeline has operated safely for 68 years and provides “a much needed source of energy”.

“Threats by the same government body raise concerns about energy security as winter approaches and the economy as the sector begins to re-emerge from the pandemic,” the company said.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Energy Minister Sonya Savage issued a statement Monday afternoon that the pipeline treaty was being implemented.

“We have previously voiced our support for this strong action, and we are delighted that the federal government has listened and followed suit,” Kenny said. “The closure of a safely operated pipeline could potentially set a dangerous precedent for future infrastructure projects. This cannot be allowed to happen.

“As we continue to manage the devastating impact of the COVID-19 Granthshala recession, it is now more important than ever that Canada and the US work together to support a continental energy strategy.”

Savage said he believes “the continued operation of Line 5 is non-negotiable because it is a key piece of North America’s integrated energy system.”

“Thousands of families and businesses depend on Line 5 on either side of the border,” he said. “It supplies energy to heat homes in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, while providing reliable, safe energy to the neighboring states, Ontario and Quebec.”

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-Granthshala News with files from ‘Phil Heidenreich’

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