By Maude Barlow and Jim Olson
Editor’s note: This opinion piece appeared originally in Canada’s National Observer.
The United States and Canada are not only close friends and neighbours, but are also committed to resolving their differences with civility and common purpose. The 112-year-old International Joint Commission (IJC), which prevents and resolves disputes over boundary waters, is an example of this special relationship. So is the groundbreaking agreement among Ontario, Quebec and the eight Great Lakes states to ban water diversions from these shared and treasured waters.
The two nations, however, are clashing over energy policy and the effects of Line 5, the Canadian petroleum pipelines in the open waters of the Straits of Mackinac, a major shipping lane and important whitefish spawning ground where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron. If both Canada and the U.S. take a hard look at these issues together, they will swiftly realize that co-operation, not confrontation, is in the best interests of both — and, significantly, the interests of the planet.
The current discord between the two nations is over the decision in November by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to exercise her state’s sovereign constitutional authority to revoke the 68-year-old easement that Enbridge has relied upon to transport petroleum by pipeline from Alberta to Sarnia, Ont., across the public bottomlands of the straits separating Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas.
The governor took this action in light of the clear and present danger from Enbridge’s appalling track record of easement violations in operating Line 5, including lake-bed erosion undermining support of the dual pipelines in the fierce currents where Lake Michigan meets with Lake Huron. Enbridge also lacks adequate liability insurance and has steadfastly refused to provide any of the financial assurances that Gov. Whitmer has demanded.
Enbridge knew at least 20 years ago that the original design of the Straits of Mackinac pipelines was failing. Year after year, the company quietly sought approval from the state of Michigan to shore up the pipeline, passed off as “repairs,” by installing supports — now 228 of them — in effect lifting about three miles of the dual pipelines into the water column. Government officials, however, never required Enbridge to get approval for such a radical change that poses a whole set of new and serious risks.
Then, as if fate were sounding a warning alarm, a 12,000-pound anchor from a passing vessel struck and dented the twin pipelines on April 1, 2018. Last summer, Enbridge disclosed two more strikes by anchors or cables. These foreseeable accidents could have opened a gash in the pipeline, exposing 700 hundred miles of the Great Lakes shoreline — potentially including those of Georgian Bay — to a catastrophic spill costing $6 billion in economic damages to tourism, drinking water and other interests. Even worse, such a spill could trigger a domino effect of damage disrupting Great Lakes commercial shipping and steel production, slashing jobs and shrinking the U.S.’s gross domestic product by $45 billion after just 15 days. Michigan will lose tens of thousands of jobs if Line 5 ruptures.
Many families, communities, tribes and businesses understandably are skeptical of Enbridge’s safety assurances. Enbridge calls Line 5 “as good as new” and says it can last “forever,” even though Line 5 has failed at least 33 times since 1968, spilling more than 1.1 million gallons of oil in Michigan and Wisconsin. In 2010, the company was the culprit in one of the largest petroleum spills in U.S. history. A leak in an Enbridge pipeline in southwest Michigan dumped 1.2 million gallons of heavy tarsands oil into the Kalamazoo River watershed, harming human health and damaging fish and wildlife habitat. The spill cost Enbridge over $1 billion to clean up to the extent possible. The U.S. agency that investigated the spill likened the Enbridge response to the spill to the “Keystone Kops” and cited “pervasive organizational failures at Enbridge.”
Many Canadians are concerned about the possible distortion of their energy supply. They shouldn’t be. Available capacity and flexibility to meet energy demand in the Great Lakes region already exists in the North American energy pipeline system operated by Enbridge and its competitors without threatening our public waters and the economy, according to experts from the Great Lakes protection group FLOW. They argue that when Line 5 shuts down, regional domestic energy needs and supplies for refineries will still be able to be met. The estimated increased cost to consumers would be a fraction of a cent per gallon of gasoline, according to a study commissioned by the National Wildlife Federation.
The threat to the Great Lakes, both U.S. and Canadian waters, is clear. Equally clear is the risk to the planet of another 99 years of transporting carbon-rich petroleum from the Prairies to Sarnia for refining and ultimately releasing massive carbon dioxide emissions. Government promises of a new commitment to action on climate change are hollow if Line 5 continues operation indefinitely.
The law in the U.S. and Canada recognizes the waters of the Great Lakes are held in trust to be managed by the governments as guardians for navigation, fishing and other paramount needs of citizens. Unfortunately, the Canadian and Ontario governments have joined forces with Enbridge to forsake this guardianship by pressuring Gov. Whitmer. As the company spends resources on a slick public relations campaign exaggerating the benefits of Line 5 to the U.S. while neglecting to mention its history of environmental negligence, the governments dispute Michigan’s concerns about a Great Lakes spill.
In 2016, the IJC urged governments in the Great Lakes region to adopt the public trust doctrine as a legal backstop to assure the majesty of the lakes and bottomlands is not impaired. The IJC recommendation makes sense for present and future generations. If Canada and the U.S. do so, they will inevitably support decommissioning of Line 5.
About the Authors: Maude Barlow is an activist who served as an adviser on water to the United Nations and is Chancellor of Brescia University College. Her latest book is, “Whose Water Is It Anyway? Taking Water Protection Into Public Hands.” Jim Olson is founder and president of FLOW (For Love of Water) in Traverse City, Mich.