Mackinac tunnel moves despite opposition from Whitmer, Nessel

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Oil pipeline operator Enbridge moves under the Mackinac Bridge on their way to inspect their controversial Line 5 under the Straits of Mackinac Wednesday, June 8, 2016. Using an autonomous underwater vehicle and a roving underwater  vehicle over several days, the entire five-mile-long pipeline, which rests on supports along the bottom of Lake Michigan,will have been covered by both sonar and visual means.

A decision on whether the Mackinac Bridge Authority oversees Enbridge's construction of a 4-mile, pipeline-housing tunnel beneath the Straits of Mackinac could be aided by last-minute legislation.

On the same day dozens of Michigan residents were opposing the plan at a three-hour authority meeting in St. Ignace, Republican Sen. Tom Casperson of Escanaba introduced legislation in Lansing Thursday that would clear the way for such an agreement.

The bill gives power to the 68-year-old Mackinac Bridge Authority to “acquire, construct, operate, maintain, improve, repair and manage a utility tunnel” connecting the Upper and Lower peninsulas, establishing the legal framework for a partnership that opponents have said falls outside the purview of the authority.

The legislation is one of many moving pieces apparently lining up in favor of the agreement, which would allow Enbridge to continue operating its controversial Line 5 below the straits for another 10 years during construction of the tunnel. The agreement tasks the Mackinac Bridge Authority with negotiating the final terms of the agreement with Enbridge and taking ownership of the tunnel after it is built.

But the incoming Democratic governor and attorney general might kill the tunnel plan and shut down Line 5. And the authority’s chairman and former authority members have concerns about overseeing such a large project.

Since late September, Gov. Rick Snyder has appointed three new members to the Mackinac Bridge Authority, including outgoing Michigan Department of Transportation Director Kirk Steudle. MDOT's new director Mark Van Port Fleet will take Steudle's place in representing the agency.

The challenge is whether supporters can seal the deal before Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer takes office in January. The authority took no vote on the issue Thursday, and the panel’s next scheduled meeting isn’t until February.

Whitmer has said the line is a risk to Michigan's waterways, economy and way of life, said Zack Pohl, the governor-elect's spokesman.

"She is committed to protecting Michigan jobs and Michigan water, and opposes actions that would impede her ability to do that," Pohl said in a statement.

Attorney General-elect Dana Nessel has vowed to shut down Line 5 before a tunnel could be built, arguing she could successfully sue Enbridge in Michigan's Court of Claims for allegedly violating the state's easement on pipelines.

The twin spans through the Straits of Mackinac have long been a source of concern to Michigan residents, who point to the infrastructure's age and Enbridge's 2010 oil spill in Marshall as signs of potential disaster in the Great Lakes. 

The 65-year-old lines carry up to 540,000 barrels a day of light crude oil and natural gas liquids through the Upper Peninsula and lower Michigan from Wisconsin to Ontario, Canada. 

State officials in early October announced an agreement with Enbridge that would lead to construction of a shared “utility corridor” drilled 100 feet into bedrock below the lake bed, a project expected to take seven to 10 years and cost $350 million to $500 million. Enbridge has agreed to pay for the project, which depends on separate negotiations between Enbridge and the Mackinac Bridge Authority.

A diver inspects the Line 5 oil pipelines at the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac in a 2013 dive on behalf of the nonprofit National Wildlife Federation.

Snyder met with Whitmer on Wednesday to discuss the upcoming transition but said Line 5 did not come up during their conversation. The Republican governor denied “partisan” motivation to finalize the agreement.

Snyder would like the authority to review the proposal and decide "as soon as possible" to ensure that long-term plans parallel the progress being made on new short-term protections, said Ari Adler, a spokesman for the governor. 

“We sort of set a timetable going back to the springtime, and so I don’t view it as just because there’s an administration change,” Snyder said. “But we’ve been working in a diligent fashion with Enbridge and other parties.”

Moving the project along would be “good for Michigan," Snyder added. 

The bridge authority's next scheduled meeting is in February, said Patrick Gleason, who was elected Thursday as the authority’s chairman. It could be moved up, but Gleason said he felt no pressure to do so.  

“I’m not sure we’ve got all the information yet to make a decision,” he said. “And I think that it’s important that the MBA listen to the feelings of Gov.-elect Whitmer.”

Gleason, a Davison Democrat, said he was surprised by the authority’s intended participation in the agreement when it was announced in October, and would have liked to have been given more notice.

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist” to see the advantage of four new Snyder appointments to a seven-member board, Gleason said, but he expressed continued confidence in the bipartisan group’s independent authority.

“In 30 years in local government, I always take my time to do my due diligence before I make a decision,” Gleason said.

In a statement released prior to Thursday's three-hour authority meeting, Enbridge said the discussion was "the first step to establishing a strong partnership with the Mackinac Bridge Authority."

"Enbridge believes working with the authority is a constructive and logical way to pursue a replacement segment of Line 5 in a tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac," the statement said. 

There is no public body more concerned and attentive to the Straits than the Mackinac Bridge Authority, nor is there one with the same "solid record of success and bipartisan action," said Valerie Brader, an attorney for Snyder's administration who formerly headed the Michigan Agency for Energy.

She told the authority Thursday that the terms of an agreement would protect bridge revenues from use for the utility tunnel, and indemnify the Mackinac Bridge Authority so it would not be held liable for issues that arise in construction or operation. 

"Our main goal here is to open those discussions with you as a body to really seek your feedback on possible terms and further shape any agreement based on your comments," she said

Dozens of residents spoke during the public comment period, urging authority members to reject a plan that would rope the Mackinac Bridge Authority into the agreement.

Among the opponents was former authority chairman William Gnodtke, who was appointed by former Gov. John Engler 22 years ago and left the board last month.

In a statement Gnodtke read on behalf of eight former authority members, he said it made no sense to alter the group’s mission “to try to fix another completely unrelated problem.”

“These discussions have been going on for the past 10 months,” Gnodtke said. “Where was the MBA during these past 10 months? I’ve been on the authority for the past 10 months and nobody asked me.”

Jim Tamlyn, a former Emmet County commissioner, urged the authority to turn down the responsibility as he gestured to the packed room and said, “This is what your life is going to be like.”

“You’re in a lame-duck session right now, and I’m sure Snyder’s working with the lame-duck legislators to give you the ability to accept this,” Tamlyn said.

Casperson did not return calls for comment on his bill.

The governor's office and legislators have discussed Casperson's bill, Adler said, "because we were trying to address concerns people raised about the Bridge Authority serving in an oversight capacity for the new tunnel." 

House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, has not reviewed details of the Senate legislation but is aware of the general concept and supports the planned tunnel, said spokesman Gideon D’Assandro.

“Closing down the line immediately would negatively impact more than 200,000 U.P. residents,” he said. “Especially with the snow hitting this weekend, it reinforced how much they can’t afford to have their heating fuel cut off at a moment’s notice.”

The proposed tunnel is a “responsible solution,” D’Assandro said. It makes the pipeline “much safer while protecting the residents of northern Michigan.”

Staff Writer Jonathan Oosting contributed.