Sparks fly over Line 5 tunnel legislation

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
In this 2017 file photo, fresh nuts, bolts and fittings are ready to be added to the east leg of the pipeline near St. Ignace, Mich., as Canadian oil transport company Enbridge prepares to test the east and west sides of the Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac.

Lansing — Michigan's Republican-led Senate on Wednesday delayed a planned vote on legislation that would facilitate plans for Enbridge to move its controversial oil pipeline from the Straits of Mackinac to a tunnel beneath the lake bed.

A Senate panel approved the proposal Wednesday morning in a 3-2 vote, but Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof said he expects changes after hearing "quite a bit of criticism" about the bill, which would task the Mackinac Bridge Authority with overseeing the new tunnel. 

"I think the bill sponsor and the governor's folks are considering things that would improve that," said Meekhof, R-West Olive. "I can't say what they are yet," but some of the suggestions raised in committee "merit some more looking into."

Term-limited Republican Gov. Rick Snyder in October announced Enbridge has agreed to pay for construction of a shared “utility corridor” that would be drilled 100 feet into bedrock below the Straits. The project is expected to take seven to 10 years and cost $350 million to $500 million.

Legislation sponsored by Sen. Tom Casperson would ensure the existing Mackinac Bridge Authority has the power to oversee the proposed tunnel, which supporters say would mitigate the risk of an oil spill in the Great Lakes. 

The Escanaba Republican dismissed calls to decommission the aging pipeline as a “simplistic” solution that would cut off a supply of propane many residents in the Upper Peninsula use to heat their homes in the winter.

“The impact to my district would be devastating,” Casperson said of a shutdown. “This is a process, the next step. We’re moving forward. The tunnel is probably the best way at this time to start thinking about that.”

Environmental groups argue there are alternative methods to deliver propane to the U.P. and are opposing the legislative push.

“The Mackinac Bridge Authority is really being used here as a shell corporation for Enbridge to build an oil tunnel through the Straits of Mackinac,” said Sean McBrearty of Clean Water Action.  He suggested Snyder chose the authority because it would have broad powers to condemn property and get around environmental reviews.

But the legislation "does not grant eminent domain for the tunnel" by allowing the bridge authority to seize private land, said attorney Valerie Brader, former director of the Michigan Agency for Energy. "It omits that from the authority's powers."

Under the deal with Snyder, Enbridge would build the shared utility tunnel, transfer ownership to the existing Mackinac Bridge Authority and then lease it back for 99 years. The Canadian energy company has operated its Line 5 pipeline since 1953.

The legislation would make clear that the Bridge Authority has the power to acquire, construct, operate, maintain, improve, repair and manage the utility tunnel, which could also house telecommunications cables and other infrastructure.

The proposal advanced out of committee after less than one hour of testimony, frustrating former Mackinac Bridge Authority Chairman Bill Gnodtke, who told Meekhof he was “insulted” that he was only allowed two minutes to speak.

“You used 30 seconds to complain, so now you only have one-and-a-half minutes,” Meekhof fired back, inviting Gnodtke to submit written testimony after the vote.

“We don’t have the expertise to do this,” said Gnodtke, who spoke out against tasking Bridge Authority members with overseeing a tunnel project they knew little about before Snyder’s announcement this fall.

“When I find out about a tunnel 23 minutes before they announce it on October 2, I don’t think that’s being inclusive and showing any respect,” he said.

Dennis Cawthorne, a former Republican lawmaker and lobbyist with a long history in the Mackinac region, called the proposal a “perversion of the purpose of the bridge authority” that could be a “millstone around the neck” of a body created to oversee the bridge, not a tunnel.

He suggested the state create a separate authority to oversee the proposed tunnel. As it stands, the legislation could force the bridge authority to pay legal costs for lawsuits over the tunnel.

“I think this is wrong, and I think it’s wrong to commit the authority to having to defend Enbridge in any challenges brought,” said Cawthorne, who recommended several amendments.

Michigan Department of Natural Resources Director Keith Creagh, a key player in the Snyder administration's tunnel push, said he is open to clarifying the language to address concerns or "misunderstandings."

"The intent is not to increase liabilities," Creagh said. "The intent is to make sure they get the appropriate permits. The intent is to make sure that there's a very predictable path to shut down the dual pipelines without interrupting energy."

While he acknowledged concerns over tasking the Mackinac Bridge Authority with tunnel oversight, "the question is, can you expand the expertise, capacity and capability?" Creagh said. "And we believe you can."

Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer campaigned on a pledge to shut down the Enbridge pipeline and has said it would be "unacceptable" to leave Line 5 in the Straits while a tunnel is built. 

Creagh said it remains an"open question" whether the Snyder administration will be able to finalize the tunnel deal before the Republican governor leaves office at the end of the year. Beyond the legislation, the Mackinac Bridge Authority would still have to sign off.

"We have to pay attention to the Mackinac Bridge because there's major construction coming," he said. "At the same time, I don't believe the administration will enter into an agreement without certainty of shutting down the two lines without a date certain."

Republican Sens. Mike Kowall of White Lake and Geoff Hansen of Hart joined Meekhof in voting for the Bridge Authority legislation in committee but said they hoped to have “continued discussions” on the proposal.