If the battle over the fate of the Line 5 pipeline results in a shutdown this week, the situation could spur a scramble to meet fuel demand in Ontario and Quebec.

Last November, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered Calgary-based energy company Enbridge to shut down the pipeline, which carries 540,000 barrels of Canadian fossil fuels per day across Wisconsin and Michigan to Sarnia, Ont., by May 12. Whitmer has remained steadfast, even amid a flurry of entreaties from Canadian officials.

It’s unlikely the pipeline will actually go offline Wednesday — Enbridge has so far said it will refuse to comply. But if it were to shut down for more than a few weeks, that could cause a massive disruption, said Warren Mabee, the director of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queen’s University.

“It would be chaotic,” Mabee said.

“Over a few weeks, the supply chains can adjust internally, and things can sort of respond. If it goes longer than that, if it looks like it's going to be more of a permanent shutdown, it becomes a much harder logistical piece to deal with.”

Enbridge has taken Michigan to U.S. federal court, and the two sides are currently in mediation. But the next session is scheduled for after the May 12 deadline, and it's unlikely they’ll find a solution in time.

Line 5, which was built in 1953, crosses through the choppy waters of the Straits of Mackinac, a narrow waterway connecting Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. The area is environmentally sensitive, and the twin pipes that make up Line 5 lie exposed on the bed of the channel.

Enbridge has been working on a plan to reroute the aging pipes through a tunnel beneath the bedrock of the straits. The company says the pipeline is safe and has never had a spill, but Whitmer has argued it poses an “unacceptable risk to the Great Lakes, pointing to a 2018 incident where an anchor from a barge dented the pipes, but did not rupture them.

The Anishinabek Nation in Ontario and 12 tribal governments in Michigan have backed Whitmer’s decision.

Line 5 proponents point to the pipeline’s economic impact: it feeds nearly half of Ontario’s demand for fuel, including the jet fuel used at Toronto Pearson International Airport. It also sends fossil fuels to Quebec refineries via the Line 9 pipeline, providing a similar proportion of the province’s supply.

“Line 5 is probably one of the most critical pieces of infrastructure for energy use in Central Canada,” said Aaron Henry, the senior director of natural resources and sustainable growth at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

It's unlikely that Line 5 will actually go offline this week. But if it were to shut down for more than a few weeks, the situation could spur a scramble to meet fuel demand in Ontario and Quebec, experts say. #cdnpoli #onpoli

Companies have worked on contingency plans for months, and there’s extra product stockpiled to help weather a few weeks of disruption, Mabee said. Though there are other ways to move fossil fuels should a shutdown go on for much longer, they’re more expensive and logistically difficult.

“There's no natural replacement, there's no other pipe that's empty right now that they could just divert the oil through,” Mabee said. “So you'd be looking at some combination of ship, rail and truck. That’s just going to push your costs up.”

Shipping won’t work in the winter, when portions of the St. Lawrence Seaway are frozen. It might be difficult to find capacity on Canada’s already busy rail lines. Trucks release carbon emissions and cost significantly more.

“It is a tremendous amount of product that suddenly no longer has a very safe, very efficient and very cost-effective method of transporting it,” Henry said.

The Ontario government has said the disruption could cause thousands of layoffs in Sarnia. Those would likely be short-term losses, but if the shutdown went on for years, companies might re-evaluate their business plans and eliminate jobs permanently, Mabee said.

The clash over Line 5 should be a signal for governments to start planning a longer-term transition for refinery workers, Mabee added. Though a sudden shutdown would be tumultuous, the world is moving towards a lower-carbon future that's less reliant on fossil fuels.

“It's not a one-sided story. There is environmental risk associated with the pipeline, and there is long-term environmental damage caused by the oil sector,” he said.

“At the same time, the fact that there's many, many jobs and much of the economy depending on this doesn't necessarily mean it should just be given carte blanche… I think that it's got to be a planned transition.”

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Enbridge pipelines have already caused the two biggest inland oil spills in American history, in Minnesota in 1991 and Michigan in 2010, as well as many smaller ones, including along Line 5. Moreover, the tar sands operations stimulated by the pipeline are deforesting the land, poisoning the water, trampling indigenous rights, cooking the biosphere, and killing jobs by pulling investment away from industries that employ far more people. The short-term benefits of cheaper oil in Ontario and Quebec pale in comparison to these massive harms.

The real questions in this stand off still aren't being asked. If this pipeline is so damn 'essential' and so productive of jobs and economic wealth, why has Enbridge not simply come up with a detour that re routes the heavy oil around the straits???
More to the point, why is it that WATER, which everyone can beak off about being LIFE, is always the unmentionable casualty of catastrophic oil spills??? Finally, when did we all become so ahistorical that the reality of aging infrastructure becomes a non issue???f

It's not just oil and gas pipelines we seem to worship and believe will last forever. Aging nuclear plants are resisting decommissioning as well.....even though some of us too old to have fallen for the care bear mutant ninja turtle philosophy of endless growth still understand that when pipes get old, they have a tendency to corrode, leak and sometimes burst. Rumour also has it that when nuclear plants fail the melt down can be more than a short hot spell, but pundits never seem to be concerned about that 'worst case scenario'.

When did energy companies convince us that their projects are immortal, and all us little people dependent on their divinity??? If they're such money makers, surely godfathers like Enbridge should have built the detour around our Great Lakes by now.

That it hasn't bothered says something about Oil Company entitlement......and Hubris. Perhaps shutting down line 5 will teach them a valuable lesson in real investment. I'm with the governor of Michigan.

If the result of the shutdown is more expensive fuel then I've all for it because that means a faster transition to low-carbon alternatives: EVs, heatpumps, etc. We're in a climate emergency - time to act like it.

I would suggest that an E-W transmission corridor for clean electricity could be built orders of magnitude quicker than any pipeline and be far less costly. Quebec and Manitoba have lots of hydro electric capacity. There may be some existing transmission corridors that can double up, let alone highway rights-of-way and other utility easements. Going underground in conduits in spots is cheap if the ground is already opened up for roads and urban utility projects. The hardest part would be substituting electricity for liquid fossil fuels quickly enough at the demand side to not have an impact on the economy. Having said that, I saw firsthand how the Metro Vancouver transit system moved 112% of the entire population base every day during the 2010 Olympics for four weeks. Road lanes were closed for bus corridors. Thousands of buses were leased from all over the continent. Rapid transit trains ran every two minutes at peak times. Many, many people walked or rode their bikes. And it was winter.

Where there's a will, there's a way.