Natural Allies: Fossil Fuel Pipelines in the Great Lakes

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Environmental and energy issues have always been central to US-Canada relations and diplomacy – that is the key point of my new book Natural Allies: Environment, Energy, and the History of US-Canada Relations. Going back to the nineteenth century, no two nations have exchanged natural resources, produced transborder environmental agreements, or cooperatively altered ecosystems on the same scale as the United States and Canada. In this post, the fourth in a series originally published by FLOW that draws from Natural Allies to highlight transborder issues in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, I address fossil fuels and pipelines.

Most fossil fuel exports in the first half of the twentieth century went from the U.S. to Canada. For a long time, coal was the former’s major hydrocarbon export to the latter, with much of it shipped through the Great Lakes region. To illustrate, 90 percent of the 25,468,000 tons of the sooty stuff the US exported in 1950 went to Canada, accounting for about half of the coal burned in that country.

As the western Canadian oil industry developed in the early Cold War, it was largely financed and controlled by American interests. Canada began exporting significant volumes of fossil fuels to the United States. Many new oil and natural gas pipelines came to link Canadian and US markets, though for the purposes of this post I’m going to focus on those that went through the Great Lakes basin.

New natural gas pipelines were built under the Detroit and Niagara Rivers. The TransCanada Pipelines company considered traversing the United States, but ultimately selected an all-Canadian route; but the fact that the pipeline was half-owned by American interests nonetheless helped turn it into a political problem (the Great Pipeline Debate of 1956). In 1960 the Midwestern Gas Transmission secured permission for a line from Manitoba to central Wisconsin. The Great Lakes Pipeline was built from the same Manitoba/Minnesota border junction. A pipeline was approved in the early 1960s to take natural gas from TransCanada’s pipeline and send it to the Massena-Ogdensburg area by way of Cornwall. 

Turning to oil, the Interprovincial pipeline, constructed by the Interprovincial Pipe Line Company (IPL), carried the liquid hydrocarbons from Edmonton to the head of the Great Lakes at Superior, Wisconsin. This line was completed in 1950, and in 1968 was replaced by Line 3. IPL itself was a subsidiary of Imperial Oil of Canada, which meant that it was controlled by the US-owned Standard Oil; it would remain that way until 1998 when IPL became Enbridge and Canadian-owned. 

Initially, tankers carried crude from Line 3’s termination point at Superior to Sarnia during the ice-free shipping season. But another pipeline, Line 5, reached from Superior to Sarnia in 1953 via Michigan, crossing that state’s Straits of Mackinac. Before the decade’s end the line extended to Toronto. In the 1960s, IPL built lines across the Niagara River to Buffalo, added to the loop network that passed through the greater Chicago area, and with financing from the federal government connected Line 9 from Sarnia to Montreal in the 1970s. Line 5 crossed southern Michigan. Enbridge also controls Line 7, from Sarnia to Oshawa, and Line 10 which starts near the head of Lake Ontario and heads to the Buffalo area.

Canadian Production and Trade in Crude Petroleum, 1946-1976 (quantities in thousands of barrels). From Statistics Canada

In 1977, the U.S. and Canada inked the Transit Pipeline Treaty. The main reason for the treaty was to protect a pipeline that originated and ended in the same country but crossed into the territory of the other along the way – natural gas pipelines from Alaska to the contiguous U.S. in particular. 

By the end of the twentieth century, Alberta tar sands investment and development were intensifying. Canada soon became the largest supplier of oil to the United States. Both Canada and the U.S. became petro states – meaning that fossil fuels have an outsized influence on their political economy – to at least some degree.

Spills have always been a regular occurrence, both large and small. In 1967 alone the Interprovincial Pipeline spilled almost three million gallons of crude oil. Between 1973 and 1975, the Interprovincial pipeline spilled about five million gallons of crude in Alberta and Minnesota. Enbridge’s 1991 Line 3 spill in Minnesota was the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history. Enbridge’s 2010 Line 6B rupture into the Kalamazoo River spilled over one million gallons, though it was overshadowed at the time by BP’s Gulf Oil spill.

Realizing that new pipelines, particularly those originating from the oil sands, meant locking in several decades more of dirty carbon emissions, many folks began opposing pipelines such as the Keystone XL expansion and the Dakota Access Pipeline. Similarly, there was widespread opposition to Great Lakes pipelines.

Enbridge’s Line 5 carries Alberta fossil fuels underneath the Straits of Mackinac. This would perhaps be the worst possible spot in the Great Lakes for an oil spill. The placement of this pipeline, and others, also ignored Indigenous treaty rights that had been disregarded when easements were granted. Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced in 2020 that Michigan would revoke the 1953 easement for Line 5. But Enbridge and the Canadian government challenged this, with Ottawa formally – and, arguably, inappropriately – invoking the 1977 Pipeline Transit Treaty. 

The pipeline opposition has been led by Indigenous activists. Protesters were out in full force trying to prevent a replacement for Line 3. But Enbridge recently completed this line, and is making disingenuous claims about its plans for a Line 5 tunnel.

Given the history of spills, and Enbridge’s poor response and safety record, it is no surprise that getting Line 5 out of the Straits of Mackinac is an animating goal for many environmentalists in Michigan and the wider Great Lakes. Mobilizing hydrocarbons is not only bad for the climate and environment. It is also bad for business and taxpayers since investments in allied infrastructure such as pipelines will likely become stranded assets.

Feature Image: Straits of Mackinac. The Mackinac Bridge crosses over top of the water and Line 5 crosses underneath. Photograph by Daniel Macfarlane
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Daniel is an Associate Professor in the School of the Environment, Geography, and Sustainability at Western Michigan University. He is an editor for The Otter-La loutre and is part of the NiCHE executive. A transnational environmental historian who focuses on Canadian-American border waters and energy issues, particularly in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, Daniel is the author or co-editor of five books on topics such as the St. Lawrence Seaway, border waters, IJC, and Niagara Falls. His book "Natural Allies: Environment, Energy, and the History of US-Canada Relations" was published in summer 2023. His newest book, an environmental history of Lake Ontario, will be released in 2024. Website: Twitter: @Danny__Mac__

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