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Solving Line 5 pipeline spat will require Biden's intervention, U.S.-Canada expert says

U.S. President Joe Biden may be the key to settling the dispute over a Canadian-owned pipeline in Michigan, according to a long-time analyst of Canada-U.S. relations.

'So far it's all talk, no action,' says Chris Sands about Trudeau's purported special bond with U.S. president

In this 2017 file photo, fresh nuts, bolts and fittings are ready to be added to the east leg of the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline in Michigan. (Dale G. Young/Detroit News via The Associated Press)

U.S. President Joe Biden may be the key to settling the dispute over a Canadian-owned pipeline in Michigan, according to a long-time analyst of Canada-U.S. relations.

Calgary-based Enbridge's Line 5 transports oil and natural gas liquids from Western Canada through the United States to refineries in Ontario and Quebec. Enbridge is working to replace a segment of the 68-year-old pipe that runs 7.2 kilometres under the Straits of Mackinac, which connects Lake Huron and Lake Michigan.  

The 1,038-kilometre project, built in 1953, goes from northwestern Wisconsin, across the upper peninsula of Michigan, under the Strait of Mackinac and down through the lower peninsula before crossing back up into Canada, terminating in Sarnia, Ont. 

Last November, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer moved to revoke the 1953 permit that allows the crossing under the straits. She gave notice that Enbridge must shut down the pipeline by May 2021, arguing the project presents an "unreasonable risk" of environmental damage to the Great Lakes. 

Earlier this week, Michael Grant, assistant deputy minister for the Americas at Global Affairs Canada, addressed a meeting of the House of Commons special committee on the economic relationship between Canada and the United States.

He said the federal government is prepared to invoke the rules of a decades-old bilateral treaty if necessary to prevent the state government from pulling the permit. 

"The federal government is working very closely with Enbridge, mostly through mobilizing our diplomatic network in the United States, to engage the state of Michigan, as well as other states that have a vested interest in Line 5. We are also looking at all of our options that are available, including the 1977 treaty," Grant said.

Christopher Sands, the director of the Canada Institute at the Wilson Centre in Washington, D.C., says the new U.S. president may have to get involved.

"Joe Biden is the key to this. And he's the key to it because this is litigation by the state of Michigan. So the federal government can't necessarily pre-empt the legislation, but they can weigh heavily in," he said.

"And that's why I think Canada is talking about invoking this older treaty. They can intervene and say, 'no,no, this is important — we should allow this.'" 

However, Sands says the Line 5 dispute so far doesn't appear to be on Biden's radar and he has doubts the president will actually get involved.

"We may have to re-examine whether Biden and Trudeau really do have this special relationship that we've heard about, because so far it's all talk, no action."

The Alberta government said it's in favour of Ottawa taking "any and all measures" to keep Line 5 operating.

"Alberta's government continues to engage with elected officials on both sides of the border, reinforcing the importance of Line 5 as a responsible source of needed energy for U.S. states and provinces in Central Canada," Alberta Energy spokesperson Kavi Bal said in an email to CBC News.

Line 5 carries 540,000 barrels of light crude and natural gas liquids per day.  

It also delivers a critical piece of Ontario's crude oil supply, and, via Line 9, about 66 per cent of crude consumed in Quebec. Plus, it feeds 55 per cent of Michigan's propane supply.

With files from Elise von Scheel

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