Cheap, clean, safe and secure. Whether it’s petroleum products, natural gas or electricity, that’s how we like our energy. But we’re never really satisfied, are we? Our wallets feel picked by the monthly utility bill. Only a perpetual motion machine will ever be clean enough. And we question safety over extremely low-probability events.
I’m being facetious, of course, but what about energy security? That’s the instinctual knowledge in modern society that the lights go on when you flick the switch. Security is the comfort that the furnace will fire up for an Edmonton winter and the gas pump will have ample fuel when you pull up to fill up. When our energy systems fail to deliver that is when we panic.
Ironically, when it comes to oil supply, Canada could be one of the least energy secure countries in the world.Say what? Canada, the fourth largest producer of oil in the world, a country that exports just over two times more petroleum than it consumes, is vulnerable to shortages?
In fact, recent events raise the probability of disruption in Central Canada.
First some background. Unless you’ve been off-grid, you should know that Canada does not have a pipeline that flows from its western oilfields to the eastern reaches of our land. The last hope of having a cross-country pipe was squashed in 2017 with the shelving of the contentious Energy East project.
Trying to connect east and west is not a new issue in Canada. Seventy years ago, Parliament debated the merits of an all-Canadian oil pipeline route versus the lower-cost option of routing our oil though the United States. Repeatedly, low-cost has trumped sovereignty in our pipeline decisions.
Central Canada continues to import most of its oil through pipelines from the United States. Much of it arrives through a blandly-named piece of steel called “Line 5.”
A pipeline from the United States sounds comforting enough; President Trump called our friendship “one of the most important,” on Canada Day. But the good vibes are not as friendly in Michigan, where it matters most. The Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, has vowed to shut down Line 5; her Attorney General has launched a lawsuit to that end.
Operated by Enbridge, Line 5 has a capacity of 540,000 barrels of day of crude oil and natural gas liquids. It’s a vital source of supply for the Sarnia refinery complex that satiates Central Canada’s energy needs. Inconveniently, the decades-old pipeline runs under the Strait of Mackinac, a channel between Lakes Michigan and Huron. Like any pipeline these days, safety and environment are the points of high scrutiny.
Yet if Americans cut Line 5, they cut off Sarnia.