Michigan will not close pipeline, insists Sarnia mayor; optimism in the air but much at stake
SARNIA — The Michigan governor has threatened to close an important fuel pipeline to Ontario by the end of the month but a local mayor is optimistic that it won’t happen.
Governor Gretchen Whitmer said she plans to close the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline that runs from Western Canada, through Michigan and under the St. Clair River, to refineries in Sarnia. But Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley, a self-described writer of as many unanswered letters to the governor as St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians is very optimistic. “You know, it’s not going to close,” he asserted.
Bradley explained to Farmers Forum how a number of factors are coming together on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border to keep petroleum products flowing through the pipeline after Whitmer’s May deadline. And the Canadian agricultural sector has played an important part, the mayor says.
“I do know one of the selling points by the federal government to the Quebec caucus was the agricultural issue,” Bradley said, pointing out how the market-driven propane shortage of three years ago remains a fresh memory in Eastern Canada. “And this would be the same,” he said. “That line carries a lot of propane for agriculture and for other uses. Having that rural agricultural voice, I think it made a huge difference in terms of getting attention.”
Locally, both the Lambton Federation of Agriculture and Ontario Federation of Agriculture have been key in lobbying to keep the pipeline flowing, he added.
Whitmer last year revoked a 1953 state easement through which the pipeline runs on the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac connecting Lake Huron to Lake Michigan, about 300 kilometres northwest of Sarnia. It is here where Whitmer fears a pipeline could leak if struck by a ship’s anchor. Separate reports say the pipeline is safe and has not deteriorated.
Shutting Line 5 would put some 3,000 direct Sarnia jobs at direct risk, as well as raise fuel and propane prices and load Canadian roads with fuel trucks and railways with tanker cars, Bradley said.
The mayor expects a “negotiated settlement” will head off that outcome, now that a 1977 agreement between Canada and the U.S. — prohibiting either country from cutting off energy supplies to the other and never before invoked — has come to light. He also cited a Michigan court action initiated by Enbridge, in which it appears the Canadian government intends to file its support, as another likely contributor to preserving flow on the 68-year-old line while its replacement is built. Enbridge has agreed to construct a half-billion-dollar tunnel and pipeline beneath the Straits.
“If anyone said to me a year ago we’re going to have a pipeline unite all the political parties, I would have (said I’d more likely have) been struck by lightning,” Bradley remarked, marvelling at the Canadian pushback against Whitmer. “But it has because of that possible propane shortage that would have a devastating impact on the farm community.”
The unified front includes American interests as well, as an estimated 55 to 65 per cent of Michigan’s own propane supply “ironically” depends on the pipeline, while neighbouring Ohio has also come out against Michigan’s position. “So she’s poking people in the eye all over the place.”
Based near Windsor, Grain Farmers of Ontario (GFO) Chair Brendan Byrne says he’s noticed TV advertisements broadcast out of Michigan urging state residents to oppose their governor’s Line 5 shutdown plan.
Byrne emphasized the need to have the matter settled by harvest time, when a “consistent, reliable source of fuel is key” to producers and the agribusinesses that dry their crops.
He conceded the start of planting season means the issue isn’t top of mind for busy growers.
But he also suggested uncertainty around the situation could influence some producers on how many corn acres they plant in the first place. Soybeans are already attractive and set to dominate planted acres because of high prices, he pointed out, and that was without the spectre of a sudden increase in corn-drying costs.
“If the pipeline actually closed, I think we would be into a big issue across Ontario, not just with our farm community,” added Byrne, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat on 1,100 acres. “It’s bigger than just on the farm.”
The GFO has issued a letter to the prime minister and premier supporting Line 5’s continued operation, he said.
OFA Zone 6 Director Crispin Colvin, said the line’s closure “could ultimately result in a shortage of product on your grocery store shelves. It becomes a food security issue.”
Colvin, who represents the federations of agriculture in both Lambton and Middlesex counties, echoed the Sarnia mayor’s confident outlook on the situation.
“I remain cautiously optimistic about Line 5,” he said, citing Michigan’s own reliance on the line as reason for that view “if nothing else” — as the state faces a daily 756,000 U.S. gallon shortage of propane should it close.
The beef farmer similarly drew comfort from the 1977 international agreement barring one side or the other from shutting off energy supplies to the other, placing the matter squarely at the federal level in both countries.