Political "brinksmanship" in Michigan risks allowing Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. to abandon plans for a $500-million tunnel that would protect an ecologically sensitive Great Lakes waterway from the controversial Line 5 pipeline, business leaders warned Wednesday.
The Canadian and U.S. chambers of commerce joined forces with their counterparts in Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin by filing a joint brief in court to argue against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's bid to shut down the cross-border pipeline.
Wednesday marked Whitmer's original deadline for Enbridge to shut down Line 5, which she maintains poses an unacceptable environmental risk along the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac, which connect Lake Huron with Lake Michigan.
The pipeline carries 540,000 barrels per day of Canadian crude oil and other petroleum products east from Western Canada and supplies about half of Ontario and Quebec's fuel — everything from jet fuel for Toronto's Pearson Airport to gas for home heating.
"The tunnel solution essentially eliminates the risk of an oil spill at the Straits of Mackinac," the chambers argue in their filing, known in legal parlance as an amicus brief.
They argue that the existing tunnel agreement with Michigan gives Enbridge the right to cancel the project entirely if the pipeline is forced to cease operations, even temporarily.
The brief anticipates a scenario in which Enbridge is forced to shut down the line temporarily, cancels the tunnel project and then later receives a ruling that allows the line to start back up.
"The chambers urge the parties not to create avoidable short-term crises or put at risk the long-term solution (the tunnel) that they agree is superior to the status quo," says the brief.
Enbridge said it would need to re-evaluate things in the event Line 5 is shut down.
"We believe in the tunnel project and believe it is a practical solution. If Line 5 were shut down as the governor desires, like any business whose ability to operate is interrupted we would have to reassess the situation," said an emailed statement sent by company spokesperson Jesse Semko.
"All that said, Enbridge completed the engineering and design phase of the tunnel project in March and is actively pursuing state and federal regulatory permits from state and federal agencies," the statement continued. "And we remain committed to providing the people of Michigan and the Great Lakes region with safe, reliable and affordable energy."
Canada enters legal battle with filing
The so-called "chambers brief" followed a similar filing Tuesday by the federal Liberal government — a rare international foray into U.S. legal proceedings that urged the court to keep the pipeline running and called on the two sides to reach a settlement.
Lawyers for the Canadian government argue that turning off the taps would cause significant damage to Canada's economy and energy security, and would threaten the bilateral relationship between the two nations.
Natural Resources Minister Seamus O'Regan said he is confident the U.S. court will side with Enbridge because of a 1977 Canada-U.S. treaty that guarantees the uninterrupted flow of oil and gas through pipelines that cross each other's territory.
"We have said to the court … we have a vested interest in this pipeline. It heats the homes of millions of Canadians. It flies jets from Pearson Airport. It is part of our national energy security," O'Regan said at an event in Newfoundland.
"Today, we feel barring a court order, mediation will continue between the partners and we are confident that they'll find a resolution."
Wednesday's deadline was expected to pass without incident; talks with a court-appointed mediator are scheduled to continue past May 18 and Enbridge has said it has no plans to agree to Michigan's order.
That didn't discourage those opposed to Whitmer's efforts to speak their minds.
"This brinksmanship is political theatre," said Christopher Guith, senior vice-president of policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Global Energy Institute.
"Unfortunately, millions of Americans and Canadians are likely to pay the price for it."
Colonial pipeline shut down
In their brief, the chambers spell out in detail a cascade of likely "severe, nationwide and international" consequences if the line is shut down — everything from fuel price spikes and supply shortages to an increase in traffic fatalities and greenhouse gas emissions as a result of more tanker trucks on the roads.
O'Regan said Enbridge is planning for every contingency. If the pipeline stops flowing, he said, oil bound for Canada would instead be transported by truck, ship and rail.
"If anybody knows Toronto, it would be thousands of 18-wheelers clogging up the 401 and the 403 [highways] outside of the [Greater Toronto Area]," O'Regan said. "It would be thousands of 18-wheelers at the border crossing, all idling, all polluting."
Oil transported by rail is nearly five times as likely to spill than oil carried by pipeline, and the risk of a spill involving a tanker truck is 10 times as high, said Aaron Henry, the Canadian chamber's senior director of natural resources and sustainable growth.
The Line 5 dispute is taking place against the backdrop of an ongoing shutdown of the Colonial pipeline, a key energy artery for several East Coast U.S. states that was targeted by a foreign cyberattack.
The Colonial crisis prompted U.S. officials to urge people to stay calm and to resist the temptation to hoard fuel.
The White House refused again Wednesday to talk about Line 5 publicly, noting that it remains before the courts, although press secretary Jen Psaki dismissed the notion that the dispute in Michigan risks impairing Canada-U.S. relations.
"We've talked in here about how important of a partner Canada is and will continue to be on a range of issues," Psaki said.
"But this, again, is an issue before the courts, so I'm not going to have more comment on it."
With files from CBC News
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