An outdated pipeline that traverses a section of the Great Lakes has led to a stalemate between the Canadian province of Ontario and the US state of Michigan. Many consider the controversy around Line 5, which provides power to central Canada and the US Midwest, as an indication of how North America will balance its future energy requirements with its environmental commitments.
The Line 5 pipeline, which runs across Michigan from Superior, Wisconsin, to Sarnia, Canada, has the most contentious part, which is situated on the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac. The slender river links Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, two of the largest lakes in the world.
After an anchor from a cargo ship passing through the Straits struck and damaged the pipe in 2018, long-standing concerns from environmentalists and others about possible leaks were pushed to the fore.
Then-Gov. of Michigan Rick Snyder worked out a deal with Canadian pipeline operator Enbridge to protect the pipeline from further damage and keep it functioning. Line 5's enclosure in the Straits would be built by Enbridge, one of the largest pipeline corporations in the world, by drilling a $500 million (£411 million) tunnel through the rock and into the lake bottom.
The agreement was designed to put an end to concerns about the controversial, 69-year-old oil and natural gas pipeline's safety.
Will Line 5 be shut down?
But two years later, Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Mr. Snyder's Democratic successor and a longstanding adversary of Line 5, issued a directive directing the company to cease operations in the Straits, thereby ending Line 5.
The Great Lakes, one of the largest freshwater resources in the world and a key component of the regional economy, were described as being under "unreasonable risk" by the speaker.
There is now no sign of a resolution to the lengthy dispute about the project's future, the building of the pipeline, or the need to protect the Great Lakes.
Permits and a safety and environmental impact analysis are still pending for the project, which would take years to complete.
Furthermore, Enbridge disobeyed the halt order issued by Governor Whitmer, which opened the door for a lengthy court struggle.
Enbridge asserts that the pipeline, which generates between $1.6 million and $2.0 million per day, has been operating in the Straits reliably and safely for many years.
In response, Michigan sued the company to demand that Line 5 be shut off. The case is now being heard by a US federal court.
Canada, which is located in Calgary, supports Enbridge.
Oil and gas are transported from western Canada to homes and refineries in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Ontario, and Quebec through the Lakehead System, a network of pipelines. This system contains Line 5.
Ottawa sponsored Enbridge's legal defense because it provides the bulk of the crude oil required by the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec and was worried that it would be forced to shut.
Ottawa has already issued a warning that a shutdown would significantly affect supply chains and employment on both sides of the border. It is related to the 1977 Transit Pipelines Treaty between the two countries.
The agreement ensures that crude oil will flow between the US and Canada as long as the associated pipelines adhere to several standards and guidelines. Arbitration is required if there is a dispute.
However, 12 Anishinaabe tribes in the state with federal recognition favor Michigan because they think Line 5 poses an undue risk to the Great Lakes.
The tribes assert that since the rivers are also significant to them spiritually, their constitutional treaty rights protect them.
According to Whitney Gravelle, head of the Bay Mills Indian Community, their origin story is essential to the Straits of Mackinac.
She said that they had the right to hunt, fish, and gather in the region, calling Line 5 "on perpetuity - and a ticking time bomb that may destroy our culture and lifeways."
For many Michigan homeowners who use propane as their main source of heating, Enbridge estimates that it meets 55% of the state's propane demand.
Dan Harrington is the proprietor of UP Propane and a major provider of propane used for heating in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, north of the Straits of Mackinac.
To avoid disappointing his 17,000 customers, he arranged an alternative supply route out of concern that the pipeline may be shut down.
"We erected a rail terminal where we are not getting any, or very little, of our propane from Line 5," claims Harrington.
However, he said that "the Midwest would be in a world of difficulty" if it were to be shut down.
Enbridge claims that the Great Lakes tunnel project will "virtually eliminate" the chance of a leak, but some people don't agree.
According to Richard Kuprewicz, a reputable expert on pipeline safety who was hired by the Bay Mills Indian Community, moving oil and gas "through an enclosed tunnel enhanced the potential of a catastrophic explosion." Although not "negligible," he regarded this danger as being modest.
Dave Schwab, a Great Lakes oceanographer, believes that a pipeline leak would be disastrous even in the best-case scenario.
Every day, Line 5 moves close to 500,000 gallons of gas and oil.
The diversity of habitats inside and around the Straits of Mackinac may "mark a point of no return for species decline." According to an independent risk analysis, an oil spill might cause losses of almost $2 billion.
In addition to building pumping stations to increase the flow of other pipelines, Michigan is looking at replacement options for Line 5.
Enbridge says there is no practical alternative and will continue to operate Line 5 at the Straits until the tunnel is completed. While other parts of the pipeline have seen leaks totaling more than a million gallons throughout their life, the segment of Line 5 that crosses Mackinac "remains in superb condition and has never leaked."
According to a Canadian expert, Joe Biden is unlikely to approve of the Line 5 pipeline's closure. According to Heather Exner-Pirot, the oil crisis has caused a change in political sentiment on this issue. Tribes and environmentalists who contend that Line 5 violates the Biden administration's commitment to green energy will be incensed by this.