Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

An aboveground section of Enbridge's Line 5 at the Mackinaw City, Mich., pump station in October 2016. Line 5 has been bringing oil from Alberta to Central Canada by way of Wisconsin and Michigan since 1953.John Flesher/The Associated Press

Line 5 will almost certainly not shut down next week. Despite more sabre-rattling from Lansing on Wednesday, years may pass before an appellate court finally rules on whether the State of Michigan has the power to disrupt Central Canadian oil supplies. But the whole thing is tragic.

That Gov. Gretchen Whitmer would seek to shut down the pipeline even though she knows it would cripple energy supplies to Ontario and Quebec – and to Michigan, for that matter – and that President Joe Biden has been unwilling to intervene speaks to how badly relations between Canada and the United States have deteriorated.

This isn’t just the legacy of Donald Trump. This is two decades and more of increasingly difficult relations between the two countries. Every year it gets harder for Americans and Canadians to call each other friends.

Line 5 has been bringing oil from Alberta to Central Canada by way of Wisconsin and Michigan since 1953. After the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill in 2010, and Enbridge’s badly mismanaged response to an oil spill in Michigan that same year, environmentalists and Indigenous-rights activists focused on the 6.4-kilometre portion of Line 5 that lies on the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac, which separate Lake Huron from Lake Michigan. The aging line is an environmental disaster waiting to happen, they warned.

In response, Enbridge and then-governor Rick Snyder, a Republican, agreed on a project to construct a tunnel under the lakebed to house the line. But Gov. Whitmer decided that tunnel would take too long to construct, and ordered the line to be shut down by May 12. Enbridge took Michigan to court.

The loss of Line 5 would be an economic disaster for Canada and a major disruption for Michigan. The line supplies Ontario with 45 per cent of the crude oil it requires, up to half of the crude used in Quebec refineries to make gasoline and other fuels, and more than half of Michigan’s propane needs. That is why Canada is warning that it will, if it must, invoke a 1977 treaty that could compel Michigan to keep the line open.

That Gov. Whitmer would give so little consideration to the economic impact of shutting down Line 5 is stunning. Just as stunning is the major increase in ship, rail and truck traffic – all with serious environmental impacts – that would be needed to replace the oil in the line.

“This is an aggressive action against Canada’s national security,” says Roy Norton, who was Canada’s consul-general in Detroit from 2010 to 2014. “It is a stunningly unfriendly act against Michigan’s friend, partner and best customer.”

Ontario and Michigan once worked closely together to prevent any disruptions to their integrated economies. Each is by far the other’s largest market for exports. The Conference of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers was once an effective forum for advancing regional interests and resolving concerns.

But things have slowly, incrementally been getting worse ever since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. The Americans tightened security at the border and increased protective tariffs. Then-president Barack Obama and prime minister Stephen Harper took some stabs at regulatory reform, but not much came of it. Relations during Donald Trump’s presidency were fraught on the best of days.

And it is telling that, even while the Canadian government is describing the preservation of Line 5 as “non-negotiable,” Mr. Biden has expended no political capital on trying to convince Ms. Whitmer, his close Democratic ally, to seek compromise.

Pipelines, of course, are unfashionable. The Trudeau government and Biden administration are more interested in co-ordinating carbon-reduction plans.

And by the by, Prairie voters have every right to be bitter over Ottawa shrugging off the Biden administration’s cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have brought oil sands bitumen south to American refineries, while going to red alert over Line 5, which is vital to Ontario and Quebec.

But the greatest loss is the loss of trust between leaders in the two countries – the steady erosion of respect. Politicians, not judges, should be resolving matters of such vital national interest. It should never have come to this.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe