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Canada invokes 1977 treaty to push Line 5 dispute out of state court

Floatilla | Pipeline 5
Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is trying to shut down an Enbridge oil pipeline that crosses the Straits of Mackinac near the Mackinac Bridge.

Canada has invoked a 1977 treaty in a dispute with Michigan over an oil pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac. Treaty negotiations would remove Michigan courts from the case.

The Canadian company Enbridge operates Line 5 under the straits. Enbridge has been in a court battle with Michigan since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer revoked permission for the company to move oil through the line four months ago.

The government of Canada had not gotten involved directly, until it filed a letter with the federal court for the western district of Michigan formally invoking the treaty’s mechanism for settling disputes.

“Procedurally, they have no basis for doing that. They’re not even a party to the case,” said Margrethe Kearney, a senior attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Grand Rapids. The firm has filed a brief in favor of Michigan’s arguments in the court case.

Invoking the treaty means the dispute moves to negotiations between the two federal governments, but Kearney said the dispute is between Michigan and Enbridge, not the U.S. and Canada.

While the two countries sort out their treaty obligations, the pipeline will continue operating and threatening local ecosystems, said Kearney.

Enbridge said the pipeline is the safest and most environmentally friendly way to move oil in the Great Lakes region.

“Pipelines continue to be a safer, more reliable way to transport fuel than truck, train or barge. These other modes burn far more fuel in order to move it, releasing more greenhouse gases into the environment and would increase safety risk along each of those transportation modes,” said Enbridge spokesperson Ryan Duffy.

The company said it’s grateful for the support of the Canadian government.

“We greatly appreciate the efforts of ‘Team Canada’ – from the Government of Canada to the Provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and Saskatchewan for their commitments and efforts to keep Line 5 open,” said Duffy.

Brett joined WCMU in February, 2021, as a general assignment reporter. He was previously the health reporter at WXXI Public Broadcasting in Rochester, N.Y., and has filed stories for National Public Radio, IEEE Spectrum, The Village Voice and other outlets.