Line 5 “Reality Check”—We Don’t Need Line 5 to Supply Energy to Canadians and Michiganders

Jim Olson is FLOW’s Founder and Legal Advisor

By Jim Olson

Click here to read Part 1 of Jim Olson’s Reality Check.

Recent Canadian news stories reported that Ontario and Canadian oil refineries have already started to establish an alternative plan to transport crude oil from other outlets by rail or ship up the St. Lawrence to Sarnia. This appears to be a threat to scare the public into visualizing oil transport on scores of tankers, raising the spectre of spills. But there is plenty of capacity in Enbridge’s system to handle enough crude oil to make up for most of the loss in Line 5 when it is shut down. My first reaction to the alternative plan was, “good, let Canada deal with it.” But then I thought this was unfairly parochial, so I started looking more objectively at the alternatives question.

Most corporate logistical experts and executives would neglect their duty to their company’s board of directors and stockholders if they didn’t have a backup plan to keep the oil moving at some level in the event of a pipeline shutdown—either a permanent shutdown like Line 6B after the Kalamazoo River disaster, or a shutdown such as the lawful revocation of Line 5 to prevent an even greater disaster. They must have a backup plan. If not, that should frighten Canadians, the refineries, and the good people who expect better planning than that. Enbridge’s system crisscrosses North America, and the larger pipeline system looks like someone threw pickup sticks on the living room floor.

The stark reality is that, by using surplus design capacity in the Enbridge system and a few adjustments, using other pipeline routes and capacity, along with a small percentage of crude oil needs handled by rail, the shutdown of Line 5 will not significantly impair the jobs and economy associated with the refineries in Sarnia and Ontario. 

Within a year of the Kalamazoo River watershed spill, the company took advantage of the extra 400 barrels per day design capacity in Line 78 that replaced Line 6B across southern Michigan, with a branch to Sarnia and another branch to Detroit and Toledo. There is also a new line that connects the crude oil production in Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio with Toledo and Detroit. This extra capacity is more than enough to offset the average flow of crude that courses through Line 5 each day. And, frankly, if the Sarnia refineries are planning to use rail to ship some crude from the East Coast back to Sarnia by rail, this will make up the difference between using the surplus capacity of Line 78 and terminating the flow of crude oil from the shutdown of Line 5. All spills are unacceptable, but cleaning up an oil spill on land would be easier than hundreds of miles of coastline and thousands of square miles of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. The US Coast Guard has warned that a response action would be impossible in winter ice, storm, or night conditions. Even in daylight, no more than 30 percent of the oil, at best, would be recovered.

Seven years ago Enbridge doubled the capacity of Line 6B-78—from 400,000 to 800,000 bbl. per day, doubling Line 3 and others. Then it pushed Line 5, initially 300,000 to 580,000–using anti-friction fluid devices and rearranging pumps approved by the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) without connecting the dots on its doubling of oil through Line 6B. Enbridge, with or without MPSC’s complicity, managed to increase its crude oil capacity in Michigan from 700,000 bbl./day to 1,380,000 during the same time frame without any determination of the public interest, necessity, safety and evaluation of alternatives.

This was and is unconscionable, coming right after the rupture of the old Line 6B in 2010. Michigan rewarded Enbridge for one of the worst inland oil spills in U.S. history.

The shutdown of Line 5 to prevent $6 billion or more in massive harm to the Great Lakes, Michigan, and Ontario won’t significantly change the Sarnia supply. Enbridge and Canadians can use the extra 400,000 bpd in the new 6B-78, together with adjustments of the system and modest use of rail or trucking with little effect on jobs or the economy, and at the same time shift its policy consistent with the need to mitigate the looming cataclysmic forces of climate change to Canadians and U.S. citizens, livelihood, and economy alike.

Reality Check No. 2—Michigan has the sovereign authority to shut down Line 5

There is an even bigger picture that will not require any alternatives at all. As noted above, the existing pipeline system in combination with modest rail crude oil transport will most likely accommodate the oil demand of Canada, the United States and other countries. Add to this the projected decline in U.S. and international demand for crude oil as auto manufacturers shift to electric vehicles, and renewable and clean energy supplants fossil fuel supplies, not to mention moves by California, Massachusetts and several nations that intend to prohibit the sale of vehicles powered by gasoline and diesel fuels. 

“As a Canadian, I am ashamed that our federal and provincial governments still put the health of their economic and political agendas above the health of the atmosphere that gives us air to breathe,” said revered Canadian leader David Suzuki. 

Add to that the billions on billions of dollars that must be spent on Great Lakes shorelines, infrastructure, shipping, roads, dams, railroads as a result of rising water levels, flooding, and erosion from climate change. Why aren’t Enbridge and the Canadian government taking into account the apocryphal reality of climate change? U.S. President Joe Biden wasted little time to recommit the United States to the Paris Climate accord when he took office on January 20 and charge his administration and country to make climate change his number one priority after we overcome the COVID 19 pandemic.

What we really need is for the State of Michigan to call this entire pipeline scam what it is: an intentional end-run around state law so Enbridge can have its way to export oil to Britain and transport synthetic crude and NGLs to Sarnia.  MPSC, EGLE, and Governor Whitmer must reset the clock and conduct a full review of needs, alternatives, and impacts in the interests of Michigan’s citizens as one Enbridge system, and out a stop to this manipulation by Enbridge; take charge governments, this segmented, fragmented divide-and-conquer scam by Enbridge must end.

In fact, we must demand that our Congressional delegation and the new Biden administration, based on its dedicated commitment to mitigate climate change, conduct a full investigation of crude oil pipelines and system into and out of the Great Lakes region, the economics and need and volume needed for crude oil, the alternatives, and impacts, including climate change with its direct devastating impacts on Great Lakes, infrastructure, shorelines, property.

There are three routes involved: Keystone XL, down to and around Chicago, and Line 5 down through Michigan and the Great Lakes. The first thing to determine is where the oil is going, how much is going where, and how much is needed in the context of a steady decline in demand and rapid shift to solar, wind, conservation and efficiency. The second thing is to determine if there is sufficient capacity in existing pipelines to meet this need. The third is to determine if there is a true need for more capacity and newer or replaced pipelines. The fourth is to conduct a comprehensive impact and alternative capacity and pipeline routine analysis to meet the true need,

Michigan has the sovereign authority to shut down Line 5.  In fact, the public trust, common sense, and the law require it—for Canadian and Michigan citizens in the Great Lakes Basin alike.

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