Line 5 drama reaches White House; U.S. and Canada to discuss future of oil pipeline

The U.S. and Canada will discuss the future of an oil pipeline that crosses part of the Great Lakes and is the subject of rising tension over whether it should be shut down, the White House said Monday.

President Joe Biden is caught in a battle over Enbridge Energy’s Line 5, a key segment of a pipeline network that carries Canadian oil across the U.S. Midwest.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat and Biden ally, has demanded closure of the 68-year-old line because of the potential for a catastrophic rupture along a 4-mile-long (6.4-kilometer-long) section in the Straits of Mackinac, which connects Lake Huron and Lake Michigan.

Enbridge says that portion, divided into twin pipes across the lake bottom, has never leaked and is in good condition. The company rejected Whitmer’s order to halt the flow of oil last May and filed a federal lawsuit, which is pending.

The Biden administration has not taken a position but is under increasing pressure to do so. Canada last month invoked a 1977 treaty that guarantees the unimpeded transit of oil between the two nations.

White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said during a Monday news briefing she expects the U.S. and Canada to "engage constructively" in discussions about Line 5.

"In addition to being one of the closest allies, Canada remains a key U.S. partner in energy trade, as well as efforts to address climate change and protect the environment," Jean-Pierre said.

She noted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is preparing an environmental impact statement on Enbridge’s proposal to run a replacement segment through a tunnel that would be drilled beneath the straits. That study doesn’t involve whether the existing twin pipes should continue operating.

Line 5 daily carries about 23 million gallons (87 million liters) of crude oil and natural gas liquids used in propane between Superior, Wisconsin, and Sarnia, Ontario. It runs underground through northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula before reaching the Straits of Mackinac.

From there, it continues south to Port Huron, Michigan, before crossing beneath the St. Clair River to Sarnia.

RELATED: Enbridge temporarily shuts down Line 5 after protesters said they planned to turn an emergency valve

President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953 issued a permit allowing the pipeline to cross the international border there. The permit says it "may be terminated at the will of the President of the United States."

Environmental groups and Indigenous tribes say that provision means Biden could order an immediate shutdown. Other options include filing a federal court brief supporting Whitmer’s position or entering negotiations with Canada, said Mike Shriberg, director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes office.

"Because Canada has invoked this treaty, the Biden administration is dragged into this whether they want to be or not," Shriberg said.

Twelve Indigenous tribes based in Michigan asked for representation at the talks.

"We possess rights and interests in the integrity of the Great Lakes that date back to time immemorial, and that are protected by solemn treaties with the United States long predating the agreement Canada rests on," the tribes said in a Nov. 4 letter to Biden.

Those rights include protection of fish populations and cultural sites in the Straits of Mackinac, said Whitney Gravelle, chair of the Bay Mills Indian Community.

Enbridge, based in Calgary, Alberta, and its supporters say a shutdown would cause fuel shortages and higher prices of gasoline and propane in the region while killing thousands of jobs.

"Billions of dollars in economic activity would be in jeopardy, and the environment would be at greater risk due to additional trucks operating on roadways and railroads carrying hazardous materials," said a Nov. 4 letter to Biden signed by 13 Republicans in Congress, including Reps. Bob Latta of Ohio and Tim Walberg and Jack Bergman of Michigan.

Environmentalists say those claims are exaggerated. State and nonprofit studies have shown that "with an orderly shutdown and careful planning, there would be little to no noticeable impact" on the economy or fuel prices, said Beth Wallace of the National Wildlife Federation.