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Enbridge's Line 5 Needs to Be Shut Down to Protect the Great Lakes

Line 5, increasingly a threat to the Great Lakes and having repeatedly violated its Michigan issued permit, needs to be closed before it ruptures to the undying regret of both Canada and the United States.

Participant seen holding a sign at the protest. Climate activists with Stop the Money Pipeline held a rally in midtown Manhattan first at BlackRocks HQ and then march to JP Morgan Chase HQ, -two of the worlds biggest funders of climate destruction in their opinion- to urge the two companies to end their support for the dangerous proposed Line 3 pipeline project, and stop funding fossil fuels and forest destruction. (Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Participant seen holding a sign at the protest. Climate activists with Stop the Money Pipeline held a rally in midtown Manhattan first at BlackRocks HQ and then march to JP Morgan Chase HQ, -two of the worlds biggest funders of climate destruction in their opinion- to urge the two companies to end their support for the dangerous proposed Line 3 pipeline project, and stop funding fossil fuels and forest destruction. (Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

I was dismayed to read Canada’s Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan pronounce his government’s "non-negotiable" opposition to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s order to close the damaged and corroding 68-year-old Enbridge Pipeline Line 5, which runs under the Straits of Mackinac. 

This pipeline poses an imminent threat to the shared waters that millions of Canadians and Americans depend upon for life, agriculture, commerce and recreation.

Currently operating in violation of a critical permit required by the State of Michigan, this pipeline poses an imminent threat to the shared waters that millions of Canadians and Americans depend upon for life, agriculture, commerce and recreation—and which both countries are committed to protect under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 and the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. 

I was honoured to serve for nine years as the U.S. section chair of the International Joint Commission (IJC), a Canadian-American organization created by the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 to advise our respective governments on these shared resources. Having no association with IJC since retiring in 2019, the views expressed here are mine alone. 

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I am speaking out because the danger of a breach of this age-compromised pipeline spanning a major shipping lane in the world’s largest freshwater body increases with every passing day.

For more than a century, the IJC has counselled both federal governments on the management and protection of our shared waters. With three Canadian and three U.S. commissioners, no IJC decision is made without binational agreement. IJC’s most important contributions to Canada and the United States are invariably based on science and thoughtful negotiations. These recommendations have frequently been informed by provincial, state, First Nations, Métis and municipal governments—each of which maintains its respective governing authority to protect the waters. 

It is in this tradition and in our nations’ shared interest in the long-term health of the Great Lakes that one would expect binational acknowledgement of these established facts: 

  • Examination of Pipeline 5 in the Straits of Mackinac shows thinning of the pipeline walls and a history of breaks in the lake bed anchors essential to keeping the pipeline tightly fixed to the lake bottom.  
  • A current jury-rigged system of bottomland attachments allows this bent and corroded pipeline to flex and float in ways it was never designed to tolerate — stresses that intensify the risk of a breach.
  • Violations of Enbridge’s pipeline permit, issued by the State of Michigan in 1953, include a history of nonreported damage from ships dragging anchors through the Straits of Mackinac.
  • Enbridge’s poor record on pipeline breaks includes the massive 2010 Line 6B rupture, which spilled almost a million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River, a tributary of Lake Michigan. Separately, Line 5 breaks outside its passage through the Straits have already spilled 1.1 million gallons. 
Undoubtedly there are hard adjustments ahead for economic segments reliant on dying markets for internal combustion engines and carbon dependent electricity. But only harm can come in trying to avoid difficult adjustments by denying reality.
 
Climate change, new energy technologies and dramatically changing cost equations all reveal evidence that Line 5 will be out of business within a decade. The elephant-in-the-room question is whether Michigan's order will force Enbridge to close this pipeline before it ruptures, or whether the company will use the courts to frustrate and delay so long as to pump its final thousands of barrels of Line 5 petroleum products into the Great Lakes, where it will remain for generations to come.
 
Canadians' commitment to the Great Lakes—especially Lake Huron with its beloved Georgian Bay—is no less ardent than that of the Americans. Canadians and Americans alike protest whenever Great Lakes waters rise too high or fall too low. How much louder and further would cries of betrayal fly if the lakes were to suffer irremediable harm from a Line 5 rupture that could have been prevented?
 
Line 5, increasingly a threat to the Great Lakes and having repeatedly violated its Michigan issued permit, needs to be closed before it ruptures to the undying regret of both Canada and the United States.

Lana Pollack

Lana Pollack is a former U.S. chair of the International Joint Commission, a Canadian-American organization that advises the respective governments on their shared resources. The views expressed in this piece are her own and do not reflect those of the IJC.

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