No imminent move on Line 5, White House says

The White House says it's not planning on making any decisions soon on the disputed Line 5 oil pipeline from Canada.

In dispute involving Canadian pipeline, Biden team offers new detail about where it stands

The Mackinac Bridge that spans Michigan's Straits of Mackinac between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron is seen in July 2002. The U.S. government said Monday that it is waiting for a full environmental review from the Army Corps of Engineers before making any decisions about the disputed Line 5 oil pipeline beneath the Great Lakes. (Carlos Osorio/The Associated Press)

This item is part of Watching Washington, a regular dispatch from CBC News correspondents reporting on U.S. politics and developments that affect Canadians. 

What's new

The White House sought to clarify Tuesday some earlier remarks about the disputed Line 5 oil pipeline from Canada.

The bottom line: There's no news for now.

A White House spokesperson had said earlier this week that the Biden administration would await a full environmental review before making a decision on the pipeline.

On Tuesday, that same official, Karine Jean-Pierre, clarified that the environmental review in question was about a future version of Line 5 and separate from an ongoing dispute over the existing pipeline.

She said that environmental review would guide a long-term decision about whether to eventually grant a permit for a new tunnel for an upgraded pipeline under the Great Lakes.

On the current Line 5, she said, there's a court dispute playing out — between the Canadian company Enbridge Inc. and the Michigan state government, which is trying to shut down the line.

Jean-Pierre wouldn't comment on that case.

"Those parties can speak more to the [legal] process," she said Tuesday.

The U.S. government is involved in talks about the existing line after the Canadian government invoked a 1977 treaty limiting either country's ability to impede a cross-border pipeline.

But Jean-Pierre said there are no developments on that front, either.

"[There's] nothing new to share on the current line. We expect the U.S. and Canada to engage constructively on it. I don't have anything else to share about that," she said.

What's the context

At issue is an old pipeline carrying 540,000 barrels per day of oil and other petroleum fuels from Canada, across the Great Lakes, then into Michigan, and finally into Ontario as a major fuel source for Eastern Canada.

The Michigan government has ordered the pipeline shut down, prompting a legal fight and court-ordered mediation. After Michigan moved to end mediation talks in September, Canada invoked the 1977 treaty.

A map of the Line 5 pipeline route through the U.S. into Ontario. (Enbridge)

The issue presents a political conundrum for Biden.

On one hand, the president's political allies in Michigan, a critical presidential swing state, want the pipeline shut down amid fear of potential damage to the Great Lakes.

On the other hand, he faces pressure to keep the fuel flowing. That pressure comes not only from Canada, but from domestic critics, as fuel prices have surged.

The context for recent exchanges at the White House: oil and gas prices and inflation, which have become a political headache for the administration.

Last weekend, Biden's energy secretary acknowledged that home heating prices will be higher this winter.

A Fox News reporter, Peter Doocy, brought up those remarks at Monday's White House briefing and asked why, given current fuel prices, the president is considering closing another pipeline from Canada. 

Biden has already cancelled one Canadian oil pipeline, Keystone XL.

The issue has become fodder in American partisan politics; the Republican Party tweeted out video of Monday's exchange at the White House and prepared to hold Democrats responsible for higher energy costs.


What's next

Jean-Pierre has made repeatedly clear this week that Biden has no plans to shut the current pipeline, saying: "That is something that we're not going to do."

At the same time, she didn't comment on another relevant scenario: Whether Biden might intervene to save the pipeline if necessary, depending on court developments.

In the meantime, Calgary-based Enbridge is applying to build a new tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac, the narrow passageway connecting Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, to house an updated version of its pipeline.

That's the project being evaluated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

A spokesperson for the Army Corps of Engineers said an evaluation like this generally takes two years. It starts with a preliminary phase, then a main phase of the work, then a draft environmental impact statement, which is followed by a final environmental impact statement, and ultimately a decision on a permit. 

The review has just begun and is in its preliminary phase, said William R. Dowell.

"From start to finish — [it's] about two years long. The process varies — but that's the approximate length of time it takes," he said.