2018-10-06 / News

State Announces New Enbridge Deal: Line 5 Tunnel Under Straits Moves Ahead

By Stephanie Fortino

Before Governor Rick Snyder’s term is up at the end of this year, the state expects to sign several agreements regarding the future of Line 5. One would have Enbridge Energy construct a tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac for the Line 5 pipeline and other utility cables, another would give ownership of the tunnel to the Mackinac Bridge Authority.

The agreement between Gov. Snyder and Enbridge Energy, for construction of the tunnel and other considerations, was announced Wednesday, October 3. It hinges on Enbridge Energy also coming to an agreement with the Mackinac Bridge Authority, which the governor envisions will assume ownership of the tunnel. The tunnel will also serve as a corridor for nearly all the utility lines that cross the Straits of Mackinac. If that agreement is reached, Enbridge will pay to build the tunnel, which is estimated to cost between $350 million and $500 million. The bridge authority would assume ownership of the tunnel once it is built, and the Bridge Authority, a unit of the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), would lease the tunnel back to Enbridge via a 99-year-long lease.

These new developments were announced in a telephone media conference by Michigan Department of Natural Resources Director Keith Creagh, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Heidi Grether, and Michigan Agency for Energy Executive Director Anne Armstrong Cusack.

The tunnel could take between three and five years to build, Mr. Creagh said, but, in reality, accounting for engineering, federal permitting, and other processes, it could be seven to ten years before the tunnel is in operation. If the plan is challenged in the courts, it could take longer. In the meantime, Line 5 will continue to transport oil and gas as it does now.

Replacing the portion of Line 5 that crosses the Straits of Mackinac into this new tunnel design is the best way to ensure that an oil spill will not occur there, Mr. Creagh said, noting the corridor will be installed 100 feet deep in the bedrock below the Straits.

Earlier this summer, Mr. Creagh and state contracted attorney Valerie Brader made a presentation at the Mackinac Bridge Authority (MBA) meeting being held on Mackinac Island, providing background information on the pipeline. During that meeting, Mr. Creagh said the state would likely approach the authority for help in addressing the Line 5 issue, although he did not disclose the nature of future state agreements at that time. Since then, the state has had no formal discussions with the Mackinac Bridge Authority, Mr. Creagh said.

Town Crier telephone calls for clarification to MBA Executive Director Bob Sweeney were routed to the Michigan Department of Transportation Communications Director Jeff Cranson. Mr. Cranson said each bridge authority member was made aware of the tunnel plan during individual conversations with Gov. Snyder’s administrative staff the week before the announcement was made. The MBA will discuss the tunnel at its next meeting Thursday, November 8, at Little Bear East Arena in St. Ignace. Mr. Cranson said the MBA will not make a decision on the issue at the same meeting it gathers input from the public. He wasn’t sure whether that decision will be made before the end of the year.

The Mackinac Bridge Authority is appointed by the governor to oversee operation of the Mackinac Bridge. It is bipartisan in the sense that its membership is divided between democrats and republicans, with a majority usually held by the party of the reigning governor. It was chosen to assume ownership of the utility corridor because it has a good track record of handling issues, Mr. Creagh said. Since the tunnel would be located just a few miles west of the Mackinac Bridge, he said it makes sense that the MBA should manage it.

“Number one, they’re used to doing utility projects,” Mr. Creagh said when explaining why the MBA was chosen. “They do a great job on the bridge. Back when the Mackinac Bridge Authority was established, they contemplated either a tunnel or bridge. And it seems appropriate that we have high-end expertise, engineering expertise, a bipartisan group that will assure some transparency in the process. So that’s the reason. It’s in their neighborhood. And it’s certainly good to have them oversee the project.”

Detailed engineering and construction plans have yet to be developed, although Mr. Creagh noted studies previously commission by the state and Enbridge have concluded a tunnel is a feasible alternative to the twin pipelines that cross beneath the Straits of Mackinac now.

The agreement also includes other measurers pertaining to the rest of Line 5 that crosses the Upper Peninsula and much of northern lower Michigan, said Ms. Grether of the Department of Environmental Quality.

In the meantime, the state has increased a restriction on Line 5 that was established last November, she said, noting that the pipeline will be shut down if waves on the Straits of Mackinac are 6.5 feet high or higher for at least an hour. Enbridge staff will also be required to be stationed in the Straits of Mackinac Area to ensure the pipelines can be shut down within 15 minutes in the event of an emergency when waves are 6.5 feet high or higher for an hour.

A new radar system will also be installed in the Straits of Mackinac so accurate and year-around data on wave heights can be collected, and new cameras will also be added in the area to monitor vessel activity.

The state is also requiring Enbridge to have $1.8 million available to cover cleanup costs in case there is an oil spill in the Straits or elsewhere along Line 5.

The agreement requires Enbridge to immediately address safety measures where Line 5 crosses 13 priority water crossings in the state. The company must also address safety concerns at 68 other crossings. The crossings were identified in a report made available earlier this year.

In a prepared statement, Gov. Snyder said, “This common-sense solution offers the greatest possible safeguards to Michigan’s waters while maintaining critical connections to ensure Michigan residents have the energy resources they need. The historic agreement will result in eliminating nearly every risk of an oil leak in the Straits and provide added protections to the Great Lakes. It also will allow for multiple utilities to be housed and protected, better connecting our peninsulas, improving energy security and supporting economic development. The taxpayers of Michigan will benefit greatly from this project but won’t have to pay for it.”

Enbridge agreed that the tunnel will protect the Straits of Mackinac from an oil spill.

“Included in the agreement is a commitment to explore the replacement of the Straits section of Line 5 with a tunnel under the lakebed that would contain a new pipeline,” the company said in a statement. “Placing a pipeline in a tunnel would reduce the likelihood of a release of oil into the Straits to near zero and eliminate the potential for an anchor strike. The agreement with the State reflects Enbridge’s steadfast commitment to protecting the Great Lakes while safely meeting Michigan’s energy needs.”

The agreement is supported by U.S. Representative Jack Bergman of Michigan’s First Congressional District.

Michigan’s Native American tribes were made aware of the agreement during a meeting Thursday, September 27, Mr. Creagh said. While the state did not address all of the tribal leaders concerns about Line 5, the state tried to incorporate some of the tribal input, including the guarantee that Enbridge has funds dedicated to responding to a Line 5 oil spill.

Environmental groups do not support the state’s new agreement with Enbridge, as many contend Line 5 does not provide significant benefit to the residents of Michigan.

The Oil and Water Don’t Mix Campaign believes the tunnel plan should be rejected, noting Michigan’s next governor should decide what to do about Line 5.

For Love of Water (FLOW) raises many legal issues with Gov. Snyder making the agreement, claiming the governor is seeking to bypass public and environmental reviews. FLOW also contends the plan increases the risk of an oil spill at the Straits of Mackinac, while violating the Michigan constitution and environmental laws. FLOW also argues that having the Mackinac Bridge Authority assume ownership of the tunnel is illegal.

FLOW President Jim Olson said in a statement: “Gov. Snyder proposes to use the 1952 Mackinac Bridge Authority, in essence, as a shell company to assume ownership of the tunnel and shield Enbridge from the difficulty of Enbridge independently seeking government permits for the tunnel and replacement pipeline. This approach is legally impossible, because the bridge authority does not have the power to build a tunnel that has nothing to do with vehicles. The bridge authority established in 1952 or a similar approach can no longer be used to circumvent environmental, water, and public trust laws tied to Michigan’s Constitution of 1963.”

The Straits of Mackinac Alliance, the citizen group of shoreline property owners pursuing legal action against Line 5, also opposed the agreement.

“The Snyder deal with Enbridge is an extraordinary and illegal action by a lame duck governor that attempts to prevent Michigan’s next governor and attorney general from removing the threat of Line 5 when they take office in January,” said alliance chair Leonard Page of Cheboygan. “Why is Michigan putting both ‘Pure Michigan’ and its taxpayers at risk to get Canadian oil to Canada for export when there are no significant benefits for Michigan?”

Mr. Creagh said the candidates running for governor were made aware of the agreement during informational meetings.

The state intends the agreements to be legally binding before Gov. Snyder leaves office, said Mr. Creagh, who added that he believes the tunnel is a good environmental policy decision.

The state does not plan to hold any public input sessions on the tunnel, he continued, noting there may be opportunities for the public to weigh in as the MBA considers whether to partner with Enbridge.

The agreement is available on the Town Crier’s Web site, under the “General Documents” tab.

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