Enbridge Line 5: Could this Cloud have a Silver Lining for the Trudeau Liberals?

  • National Newswatch

In case you haven't heard, Central Canada could wake up on May 12th to find that its gas and diesel supplies have been cut in half and that Pearson, the biggest airport in the country, can no longer get jet fuel. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has terminated Enbridge's Line 5 agreement and the oil is scheduled to stop flowing in 10 weeks.A shutdown, says Enbridge, would compromise crude supplies to 10 refineries in the region, with no viable options for replacing all that bitumen. Even if a source could be found, shipping the oil would require 2,000 trucks or 800 rail cars every day. Unless a solution is found, Canadians will be doing without.So, is Whitmer really determined to see this through?Line 5 was central to her campaign for governor, so this is about delivering on a pledge. However, while Whitmer is a Democrat, she doesn't have a history as an environmental warrior, so she probably doesn't see it as a mission.And she surely knows that Line 5 is critical infrastructure for the 22 million people in Ontario and Quebec, so that a determined effort to shut it down will be met with fierce resistance from Canada, both at the federal and provincial levels.Finally, it is hard to imagine that her colleague and friend Joe Biden (she was co-chair of his electoral campaign) wants this kind of diplomatic wrangle with Canada now.This suggests to us that Whitmer's real goal is practical: she wants to hold Enbridge's feet to the fire and raise the bar on maintenance and care of the pipeline. (More on this in a minute.) If so, this cloud could have a silver lining for Justin Trudeau. It could be an excellent opportunity to send at least three timely and important messages to Canadians.First, Canadians everywhere remain highly dependent on fossil fuels – and that's a point well worth making. When Central Canada's oil is quietly flowing in from Alberta, it's easy to forget how dependent people are on it. The threat of losing that supply literally overnight is sobering.Recall how Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet casually dismissed the proposed Energy East pipeline in the 2019 Leaders' Debate, citing Quebeckers' concerns over climate change. What will he have to say about pipelines if the province is suddenly desperate for gas and diesel and Montreal's Pierre Elliot Trudeau Airport can't get jet fuel?Second, standing up to the US is always good politics for a prime minister, but there may be a timely opportunity here to send a signal to the Biden Administration that, while Canada can be tough, it is also fair.Natural Resources Minister Seamus O'Regan is already arguing that a threat to Line 5 is a threat to Canada's energy security and that its continued operation is “non-negotiable.” That message needs to be out there, but perhaps there is room here for a good cop/bad cop tag-team with the prime minister.Six kilometers of Line 5 run along the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac, between Lakes Huron and Michigan. A rupture in one of the sixty-year-old, twin pipes would be an ecological and economic nightmare.Whitmer blames her decision to shut down Line 5 on "Enbridge's persistent and incurable violations of the easement's terms and conditions.” The company has a long list of safety infractions, including operations and maintenance violations.For example, in 2018-19 the pipelines were struck multiple times by anchors and/or cables from nearby vessels, causing serious damage to the pipes. At least some of these collisions involved Enbridge's own contractors.Rather than striking a purely confrontational tone, Trudeau could combine a strong defense of our interests with a recognition of the legitimacy of Whitmer's concerns; he could recognize the need for new and higher standards of care and accountability from the owners of such infrastructure.Trudeau and Whitmer might reach an agreement that is innovative, progressive, and a template for further Canada-US work on the environment.Third, the issue creates a high profile forum in which to talk with Canadians about the goal of Net-Zero Emissions by 2050 and, specifically, about how new partnerships with industry can contribute to a carbon-free future, from cleantech in the oil and gas sector to electric vehicles in the auto sector.This message would be welcomed in the west, where comparisons between the loss of the Keystone XL pipeline and Line 5 are currently seen as a sign of the government's indifference.“Both projects are incredibly important to Alberta and Canada,” says Jerrica Goodwin, press secretary to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. “The only difference is losing Keystone XL disproportionately hurts Western Canada…whereas losing Line 5 risks [Liberal] votes amongst Ontarians and Quebecers”Line 5 could allow the prime minister to respond by helping Canadians in all parts of the country recognize that the oil and gas industry remains essential to our prosperity and way of life, and that it can be a constructive part of our future.Jason Kenney is currently seeking $30 billion over 10 years from Ottawa to develop carbon sequestration technology. He says that there is “No feasible way” to reach net-zero emissions without this technology. Perhaps he is right.Maybe Line 5 could even be the starting point for a better working relationship between Ottawa and the Government of Alberta.Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate at the Institute on Governance and an internationally recognized expert on public engagement, governance, and policy development. For more, visit his website at: www.middlegroundengagement.comAndrew Balfour is Managing Partner at Rubicon Strategy in Ottawa.