Line 5: A Great Lakes disaster waiting to happen

The view of Hope Bay, with Georgian Bay in the distance, from a Bruce Trail lookout.

You could have knocked me over with a feather when I heard the propane truck backing down the driveway the other day. It hadn’t been that long ago, I thought, that I had the two tanks feeding the furnace filled up.

Turned out it was March 23, a month and a half ago, so it wasn’t that outlandish. Still, I was surprised, and told the driver I wasn’t sure I needed a fill-up. I was just about to turn the heat off for the season, with spring finally arrived after an unusually cold April.

And then he surprised me, to say the least, when he said, “there might not be any propane” come next fall.

“Oh, why’s that?” I asked. He said it was about the possibility something called “line 5” might be shut down by then. He explained that’s pipeline that brings oil and natural gas liquids from Alberta to Sarnia, Ontario by way of Michigan. Propane is a by-product, and if the line is shut down Ontario and Quebec, as well as Michigan and Ohio, would be faced with a severe shortage.

Meanwhile, the price of propane has, along with other fuels, greatly inflated in price this past heating season. With no indication that’s going to turn around any time soon, I chose rather reluctantly to get the tanks filled up despite the unexpected expense just then.

Coincidentally, just the day before I had been to the local gas station to get my 20-litre container filled up with diesel fuel for my tractor. I stopped at $40, not quite full. A year ago, that would have been $20.

The attendant muttered something about “Trudeau” and “pipelines.” The current inflation problem, regarding the price of oil in particular, is not a political problem, unless consumers think government should intervene in the free market, and then be accused of being dictatorial. It’s a supply and demand problem: as the economy bounces back from the covid-pandemic, economic slowdown in the past couple of years, the demand for oil and its byproducts is increasing. But producers are not ramping up supply fast enough to meet the demand while cashing in on the higher prices. Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine has also helped drive up the speculative price of oil, as war always does.

That’s bad enough. But as a long-time resident of the Saugeen/Bruce Peninsula and the Great Lakes region I was also shocked to learn a section of the 69-year-old Line 5 pipeline goes underwater as it crosses the Straits of Mackinac where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron connect. That’s up to 87 million liters of oil and natural gas liquids daily.

I should have known that a long time ago, of course. To be honest, in recent years as the owner a a propane furnace installed five years ago, I didn’t think much about where the propane came from. But now, all I can think is how utterly foolish it is that such a thing exists, and also how lucky the Great Lakes are that a catastrophe has not already happened. The fate of Line 5 is now before state (Michigan) and federal courts in the U.S., and also being discussed as a treaty issue between Canada and the U.S.

In November, 2020, Michigan Governor Gretchen Wittmer ordered the pipeline’s Canadian owner, Calgary-based Enbridge Energy, to shut down the underwater section of the Line 5 pipeline within 180 days. That action came after a state review of the state easement Enbridge obtained in 1953 allowing the pipeline to cross the straits underwater.

“Enbridge has imposed on the people of Michigan an unacceptable risk of a catastrophic oil spill in the Great Lakes that could devastate our economy and way of life,” Whitmer said in a statement at the time, as reported in an Associated Press story. “That’s why we’re taking action now, and why I will continue to hold accountable anyone who threatens our Great Lakes and fresh water.” 

Wittmer said over the years the company had persistently neglected requirements under the easement to properly maintain the safety of the line. Parts of the underwater line are not adequately supported, the state claims.

A statement currently on Enbridge’s website says the underwater section of the line was “built in 1953 by the Bechtel Corporation to meet extraordinary design and construction standards, the Line 5 Straits of Mackinac crossing remains in excellent condition and has never experienced a leak in more than 65 years of operation.”

“We’re working hard to keep it that way,” the statement continues. “We monitor the Line 5 Straits crossing 24/7, using both specially trained staff and sophisticated computer monitoring systems. We also carry out regular inspections of the line, using inline tools, expert divers, and remote operating vehicles (ROVs), going above and beyond regulatory requirements.”

Enbridge defied Michigan’s 180-day, shutdown deadline and took the state to court. The situation became more complicated when the question of which U.S. jurisdiction, state or federal, was more appropriate to hear the case. Then the Canadian government raised a treaty issue.

Meanwhile, Enbridge has a plan to rebuild the Straits of Mackinac section of the line, through a tunnel under the Straits, instead of above ground, underwater. The company has applied for a permit, which has so far not been approved.

There has been no public indication recently that the complicated situation may soon be resolved. It could be any day, or weeks, months, or years. The continuing uncertainty is troubling.

Let’s hope the condition of underwater pipeline is being closely watched by Enbridge, government agencies, and organizations concerned about the well-being of the Great Lakes.

Every day the Great Lakes have to wait for that aging, underwater pipeline to be shutdown is an obvious and unacceptable risk to the well-being of the precious lakes and the socio-economic future of millions of people on both sides of the border.