Canada Invokes 1977 Treaty in Ongoing Line 5 Battle

Image: Gregory Varnum via Wikimedia Commons

By Amy Lupica, ODP Daily Editor

The battle over Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline is heating up as mediation between the Canadian-based company and the Michigan government breaks down. Now, Canada is invoking Article Six of the 1977 Transit Pipelines Treaty, which guarantees uninterrupted flow of light crude oil between the US and Canada, to keep the pipeline running. Tensions are at an all-time high but President Biden has still refrained from stepping into the fray.


Why This Matters: This ongoing battle sheds light not only on the potential dangers of pipelines, but on the political dynamics between allied nations, and how decades-old policy still impacts their ability to curb fossil fuel use and environmental threats. The US has invoked the treaty before to ensure pipelines were able to transport oil from Alaska to the continental US, and Canadian officials say it would be hypocritical for the US to argue against the treaty now. This argument raises the question: how much should the nation’s fossil fuel history impact its energy future? And is hypocrisy on part of the US necessary to achieve net-zero emissions and protect ecosystems? 


Under the Lakes

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and local Indigenous communities have asserted that a section of the Line 5 pipeline — that runs beneath the Great Lakes — could present a grave danger to the delicate ecosystems of the Straits of Mackinac. The 70-year-old pipeline carries millions of barrels of crude oil every day, and any breach could cause irreparable damage. This isn’t the only Enbridge pipeline to face protest from Indigenous communities; the Line 3 pipeline extension in Minnesota has been vehemently protested since its approval in 2015, and successfully began carrying tar sands just this week.


Many of the concerns are compounded by the recent oil spill off the coast of California, where a ship’s anchor tore off a nearly mile-long section of pipeline. Line 5 is no stranger to close calls with anchors, and instances of collisions with anchors and ship cables have been reported in the last two years. Additionally, Enbridge has a reputation for dangerous spills; in 2010, an Enbridge pipeline spilled 3.2 million liters of oil into the Kalamazoo river, and the construction of the Line 3 extension resulted in 28 spills of drilling fluid. 


In May, Governor Whitmer ordered the pipeline to be shut down, but Enbridge refused to comply. Since then, court-ordered mediation talks have ensued, but now, those talks are falling apart as parties are unable to come to a compromise or solution. Canadian officials are particularly frustrated by Biden’s absence in the quarrel. “While Biden may want to duck the issue to please [Whitmer] and keep the environmentalists in the Democratic caucus on side, the fact is that the treaty guarantees uninterrupted pipeline transit, except in exceptionally grave emergencies,” said Lawrence Herman, an international trade lawyer and a fellow at the CD Howe Institute.


Despite the invocation of the treaty, Whitmer is confident she and her allies will triumph. She also criticized Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s choice to side with Enbridge, citing his administration’s pledges to fight climate change

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