North America’s existential debate over the virtues and dangers of oil and gas pipelines enters a crucial stage as early as Thursday in Wisconsin.
This is where a district court judge will hear arguments about whether to shut down Line 5, a critical cross-border oil pipeline between Canada and the United States.
Lake Superior’s Chippewa of Bad River First Nation says spring flooding has made the risk of a breach in its territory in northern Wisconsin too great to ignore.
The owning company, Alberta-based Enbridge, says the First Nation is overestimating the risk and preventing the company from taking protective action.
At Thursday’s hearing, attorneys from the state of Michigan will speak out, as they have been trying to shut down Line 5 since 2019 in their own courts.
It’s unclear how long the hearings will last or how quickly District Court Judge William Conley will rule on the First Nation’s request for an order to close the pipeline.
The First Nation, which says Enbridge’s right to operate in its territory has long expired, fears impending doom after spring flooding along the Bad River which it says undermined the land around the pipeline .
Enbridge says it is prepared
For its part, Enbridge insists that these claims of urgency are exaggerated – and that shutting down the pipeline would be a drastic solution.
“Although it had to prove both its liability and the grounds for an injunction, the First Nation did neither. The motion must therefore be dismissed,” Enbridge argued in a brief filed before the hearing.
“No oil spill is ‘ready to happen’, ‘will happen soon’ or ‘is real and immediate’,” the company added.
And even if the risk were high, a shutdown would be inappropriate, Enbridge argues, pointing to a court-ordered contingency plan that sets out what to do if the threat is indeed urgent.
“Enbridge will purge and shut down the line preemptively well in advance of any potential rupture,” the brief said, adding that the area remains monitored by video, 24 hours a day.
“Any flooding and erosion did not and would not take Enbridge by surprise. »
Heavy flooding that began in early April washed away significant portions of the shoreline where Line 5 intersects the Bad River, a winding 120-kilometre course that feeds Lake Superior and a complex network of ecologically sensitive wetlands.
The group has been in court with Enbridge since 2019 in a bid to force the pipeline owner and operator to reroute Line 5 around its traditional territory – something the company has already agreed to do.
But the flooding has turned a theoretical risk into a very real one, says the group, which is calling for the pipeline to be closed immediately to avert disaster.
Risks of “irreparable harm”
Michigan, led by Attorney General Dana Nessel, has argued since 2019 that it’s only a matter of time before Line 5 leaks into the Strait of Mackinac, the environmentally sensitive waterway where it crosses the Great Lakes.
“The alarming erosion of the meandering Bad River poses an imminent threat of irreparable damage to Lake Superior that far exceeds the risk of impacts associated with the shutdown of the Line 5 pipeline,” Nessel explained in his memory.
“Without judicial intervention, it is likely that this irreparable harm will be inflicted not only on the First Nation, but also on Michigan, its people and its natural resources. »
The economic arguments against closing the pipeline – which carries 540,000 barrels of oil and natural gas liquids daily through Wisconsin and Michigan to refineries in Sarnia, Ontario – are now well known.
Economic disruptions after a shutdown
Line 5 advocates, including the federal government, say a shutdown would cause major economic disruption in the Prairies and the U.S. Midwest, where it supplies raw materials to refineries in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
It also supplies key refining facilities in Ontario and Quebec and is essential to the production of jet fuel for major airports on both sides of the Canada-US border, including Detroit Metropolitan and Pearson International in Toronto.
A lengthy statement released by the Canadian Embassy on Tuesday warned of the serious economic consequences of the closure of the pipeline, as well as the potential ramifications for bilateral relations.
“The energy security of Canada and the United States would be directly affected by a closure of Line 5,” the statement said. Some 33,000 jobs in the United States and $20 billion in economic activity would be at stake, he added.
“At a time when security and energy supply are causing serious concerns, particularly in the context of the energy transition, the maintenance and protection of existing infrastructure must be an absolute priority,” writes the embassy.