Varcoe: Canadian MPs rally around a pipeline — who could’ve imagined?


For one brief moment Tuesday afternoon, it seemed like federal politicians from all parties stood together, united.

And what was the unlikely source of such harmony?

An oil pipeline.

Yup, you read that right.

Regardless of what party or what part of the country they represented, a collection of MPs appeared in general agreement around the peril presented by attempts in Michigan to shut down Enbridge’s Line 5 oil pipeline — to jobs, the economy and energy security in Canada.

“As you can see from the feeling around the table, or virtual feeling around the table, we are all in support and we are all going to work together,” said Ontario Liberal MP Raj Saini, chair of a parliamentary special committee examining the economic relationship between Canada and the United States.

“There’s not a lot of daylight among and between the members of the parties. But it does feel a little like an echo chamber,” added Liberal MP John McKay, who represents Scarborough-Guildwood.

The committee met online to discuss the threat posed to Line 5 as Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer seeks to shut down the critical oil artery.

Line 5 ships 540,000 barrels of oil and natural gas liquids each day from Western Canada to refineries in Ontario and Quebec, with the route running under the Straits of Mackinac, moving the product through Michigan to Sarnia.

It provides about half of the oil required in Ontario and Quebec, supplying refineries that produce gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. It delivers feedstock for petrochemical plants in Sarnia and Montreal, and propane needed in Michigan.

Suddenly, there’s a collective realization that energy infrastructure matters — at least, in this case.

“There is pretty widespread agreement around the table that whatever our positions around transitioning to a different kind of energy economy might be, suddenly shutting off a significant amount of current supply is not going to go well,” said Manitoba NDP MP Daniel Blaikie.

“Not just for the industry, but for all the people who work in that industry and the people who depend on that product.”

Well, who knew pipelines play such a critical role?

“I’m having a difficult time not laughing, because we have so much rhetoric out there from some of these political parties on the need to rapidly get off fossil fuels . . . until they realize it’s needed,” Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage said Wednesday.

In fairness, it seemed committee MPs had a pretty good handle heading into the hearing that this isn’t a trifling matter to this country.

Just in case they didn’t, Enbridge executive vice-president Vern Yu left no doubt about the potential economic consequences.

“A shutdown of Line 5 would cause an immediate shortage of energy in the region, it would drive prices up very significantly and the replacement of that would be years away.”

Yu warned of higher energy costs that would face consumers in Ontario and Quebec, as well as issues in Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana and Pennsylvania if that happens.

In the near term, there are no easy alternatives to replacing Line 5. In the longer run, trucks and rail shipments could fill some of the gap, although it would mean higher consumer costs and widespread use of transportation alternatives that generate more emissions and aren’t as safe.

“You’d need to see thousands of trucks to replace the pipeline,” Yu told the committee.

“Our estimation is that you’d need to see 15,000 dedicated trucks per day making that happen. You’d need to see 800 extra rail cars a day to see that happen.”

Sarnia-Lambton Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu warned that closing Line 5 would cost her community more than 20,000 jobs.

Bloc MP Simon-Pierre Savard-Tremblay wondered about the specific consequences on employment in Quebec. Yu didn’t have those figures, but said closing Line 5 would have “grave implications” for oil that moves through its system and on to Line 9, which supplies refineries and petrochemical facilities in the province.

 A tank farm at the Enbridge pipelines terminal in Sarnia is shown here.

In November, Whitmer served notice that within 180 days, the state would revoke an easement dating to 1953 that allows the pipeline to cross under the Straits of Mackinac, because of Michigan’s environmental safety concerns.

The company maintains the line has operated safely for decades and complies fully with U.S. federal safety standards. It says the state lacks the authority to force the pipeline to shut down — as it falls under federal oversight — and has challenged the order in U.S. federal court.

While the fate of the pipeline lies in the U.S. legal system, there are suggestions Canada could try to keep Line 5 operating by invoking a 1977 treaty that prevents public authorities from blocking or impeding the transmission of hydrocarbons in transit between the two countries.

Yu said it’s vital the federal and provincial governments in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and Saskatchewan make it clear Line 5 is a critical piece of infrastructure and that it’s an important bilateral issue.

The Enbridge executive said a diplomatic solution is essential, as the court process and reviews could take years to complete.

The committee discussion led to some eye-rolling in oil-producing provinces that have already faced the economic consequences of insufficient pipeline capacity. Yet, it demonstrates the significance of such projects.

“It validates a lot of things we have been saying in Alberta for a very long time,” Savage said in an interview.

Saskatchewan Conservative MP Randy Hoback, a committee member, said a pan-Canadian approach is required — similar to the efforts over NAFTA renegotiations — to drive home the role Line 5 plays in U.S. jobs and energy security.

He said some MPs are finally realizing the vital importance of oil and gas pipelines to Canada, noting the committee is largely united on Line 5.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of difference here. It’s actually a situation where everybody is putting their heads together and looking for solutions,” Hoback said after the hearing.

“I think that’s what Canadians want out of Parliament.”

Chris Varcoe is a Calgary Herald columnist.


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