Michigan commission delays decision on Line 5 tunnel permit

This June 2020 photo, shot from video provided by the Michigan Department of Enviornment, Great Lakes, and Energy shows damage to anchor support EP-17-1 on the east leg of the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline within the Straits of Mackinac in Michigan. AP, File

This story originally appeared in The Detroit News on July 7, 2022, is reprinted with the permission of The Detroit News

A state commission has asked Enbridge Energy to provide more information about its controversial plan to build the Line 5 oil and gas tunnel below the Straits of Mackinac.

The three-person Michigan Public Service Commission on Thursday agreed unanimously to reopen Enbridge’s 2020 request to replace or relocate the segment of Line 5 under the straits. The aim is “to develop a full and complete record on a number of issues including, specifically tunnel engineering and safety and the safety of the current dual pipelines” before deciding whether to approve the company’s plan, commission Chair Dan Scripps said.

“This has been an extensive process,” Scripps said. “We want to make sure that we get it right and that is the rationale behind reopening the record for the development of additional information in this matter.”

Sean McBrearty, Clean Water Action Michigan legislative and policy director, praised the commission’s decision to seek more information as prudent considering what he described as Enbridge’s “abysmal” safety record, which includes the 2010 Line 6B oil spill into a Kalamazoo River tributary.

McBrearty pointed to concerns from engineers and federal pipeline safety officials about the risk of explosion posed by operating a pipeline in a confined space with complex geology.

He encouraged commissioners to uncover “the risks of explosion not only after construction, and the risks of attempted maintenance in a confined space like this, but also… the risks of explosion during construction.”

Enbridge will continue to work with commissioners to address their questions about the relocation of Line 5 into the tunnel, company spokesman Ryan Duffy said in a statement after the meeting. He contended the existing pipelines and tunnel plan are safe.

“Most notably, the MPSC decision today to continue Enbridge’s application review process has no impact on the existing pipelines across the Straits,” Duffy said. “Line 5 continues to operate safely in accordance with all federal safety standards administered by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Commission. The ongoing operation of Line 5 also remains protected by the Transit Pipelines Treaty, which was entered by the U.S. and Canadian Governments.”

The people who spoke during the commission’s public comment period largely praised commissioners for seeking more information about the tunnel project.

Nathan Wright, a tribal member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, said the risk posed by the entire Line 5, not just the portion through the Straits of Mackinac, threatens the region’s environment as well as indigenous communities’ abilities to harvest fish and plants.

“We need to do a full, complete stop on this,” Wright said. “Ultimately, this is going to affect everyone’s rights to enjoy our lands.”

Business groups including the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and Michigan Manufacturers Association both voiced support for the tunnel project in emailed statements after the hearing.

“We fully agree that it’s essential all information is transparent and available, though do believe an extensive record of clear documentation denoting sound science exists,” Michigan Chamber of Commerce President Jim Holcomb said. “It’s time to move forward as quickly as possible to ensure our energy future, position us for economic prosperity and provide the best protection of our Great Lakes.”

Line 5 starts in Superior, Wisconsin and ends in Sarnia, Canada, carrying 22.7 million gallons a day of oil and natural gas liquids. A pair of pipelines carry the fuels through a 4.5-mile stretch of the Straits of Mackinac.

Opponents say it is dangerously aging infrastructure that threatens to rupture and damage the safety and health of a wide swath of the Great Lakes.

Enbridge officials contend its plan to build a tunnel will make that stretch of Line 5 safer than the current pipelines and would be safer than other methods of oil and gas transport. Environmental groups say the tunnel plan is also risky and would further the region’s dependence on fossil fuels that cause climate change.

Enbridge struck the tunnel deal with former Gov. Rick Snyder in late 2018.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel, both Democrats who took office Jan. 1, 2019, have fought against the plan, arguing the pipelines violate the state’s public trust and will likely pollute the state’s waters.

The commission does not have the final say in the tunnel’s fate. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is still working on an environmental impact statement for its permit review of the tunnel project.


This story originally appeared in The Detroit News on July 7, 2022, is reprinted with the permission of The Detroit News.  You may also access the article  directly from The Detroit News site.