Enbridge Explained

Words and art by Samantha Hambleton

You might’ve heard of ‘Enbridge’ or ‘Shut Down Line 5,’ but what is it really all about, and why is it important? We’re going to explain Enbridge. 

First off, Enbridge is a natural gas distribution company headquartered in Canada, transporting about 20% of the natural gas consumed in the United States. Line 3 and Line 5 are two of their most controversial pipelines; Line 3 transports crude oil and has faced most of its resistance in Minnesota, while Line 5 carries crude oil as well as natural gas in the Great Lakes region. We’re going to focus on Line 5…  

Built in 1953, it stretches 645 miles across the state of Michigan, crossing under the Straits of Mackinac. According to Enbridge, up to 22.68 million gallons or about 85.85 million litres of crude oil and natural gas is transported through the pipeline, although its exact contents are not released by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration due to security concerns. Let’s take a look at both sides of the debate Line 5 has generated. 

Proponents of Line 5 argue its economic importance. Shutting down Line 5 would mean a propane shortage for Michigan of 756,000 US gallons per day. A shutdown would also mean a shortage of “14.7 million gallons of gas, diesel and jet fuel a day.” It would put Ohio refineries at risk, which could lead to a $5.4 billion loss in annual economic output to the area as well as the loss of thousands of trades jobs.

On the other side, opponents of the pipeline maintain that the risks of Line 5 far outweigh its short-term economic benefits. A spill would have disastrous effects— leaking oil into the Great Lakes, which account for 21% of the world’s freshwater supply. A study published by the University of Michigan ran oil spill simulations and found that a leak could affect about 700 miles of shoreline. This would clearly have catastrophic impacts, not only for native species but for local economies as well. Tourism is big business for the Great Lakes state; more than 214,000 are employed in the industry, and tourists spend about 20 billion annually visiting the area.

The location under the Straits of Mackinac presents what could possibly be a particularly difficult situation. The Straits generate extremely powerful currents, and when combined with extreme winter weather and ice cover, would make cleanup or recovery from a spill exceptionally challenging.  

Those opposed to the pipeline rejoiced over a major win when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called for the shutdown of Line 5. However, this celebration was perhaps a bit premature; in response, the Canadian government essentially paused litigation between Michigan and Enbridge by invoking the Transit Pipelines Treaty. This 1977 Treaty specifies that neither shall “[impede], [divert], [redirect], or [interfere] with in any way the transmission of hydrocarbons in transit.” It seems Canada’s daughter is experiencing a bit of tough love. 

History Repeating Itself?

An anchor strike that damaged the pipeline in 2018 strengthened concerns over the safety of Line 5 and reminded many of Line 6B. 

In 2010, Line 6B burst, resulting in one of the largest inland oil spills in US history. Similar to Line 5, it carried crude oil between the US and Canada. The cleanup took years, and by 2011 the cost already exceeded Enbridge’s $650 million insurance policy. 

This all begs the question… Now what? 

Many call for the permanent shutdown of the pipeline. However, as we discussed earlier, this might not be as simple as it seems. There are a few alternatives, namely train, truck, or boat. These options all have significant downsides, a prime example being the Quebec oil train wreck which resulted in the death of 47 people. While renewables are not exactly a panacea, especially in the short-term, developing reliable sources of renewable energy would help to alleviate the need for pipelines and is certainly a step forward in the right direction. 

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