Michigan Senate approves Line 5 tunnel plan

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
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.

Lansing — Michigan's Republican-led Senate on Wednesday approved legislation designed to facilitate a deal between the state and Enbridge Inc. to move a controversial oil and propane pipeline into a planned tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac.

The proposal would create a new Mackinac Utility Corridor Authority to oversee the tunnel — which would be drilled 100 feet beneath the lake bed — instead of the existing Mackinac Bridge Authority.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who is working to finalize the deal before he leaves office at the end of the year, would appoint all three members of the new authority, which could include no more than two Republicans. Members would serve six-year terms.

"We want to make sure that energy is affordable, reliable and accessible," said Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, noting the pipeline carries propane to the Upper Peninsula and some oil produced in the Lower Peninsula. "The No. 1 goal is protecting the Great Lakes, and ... a tunnel is the absolute safest way to do that."

Snyder had proposed using the Mackinac Bridge Authority to oversee the tunnel, but lawmakers balked amid opposition from former members wary of expanding the bridge authority's scope. Enbridge has agreed to finance the tunnel construction project, which could take 10 years to complete and cost up to $500 million.

The new authority would not have the power to seize land for the project using eminent domain.

If Snyder finalizes state agreements with Enbridge, the legislation specifies that the new authority would be required to enter into enabling agreements by Dec. 31, the governor’s last day in office.

Republicans hope to quickly wrap up tunnel plans to avoid looming road blocks next session. Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General-elect Dana Nessel have both vowed to decommission Line 5 by attempting to revoke the easement that allows it to run through the Straits.

The legislation specifies that if the attorney general declines to represent the tunnel authority in a legal proceeding, including a claim that the tunnel agreement is invalid, Nessel or a successor would have to provide for the costs of outside legal counsel.

Environmental groups, who have long warned about the risk of a major oil spill in the Great Lakes, continue to oppose the tunnel plan.

It would keep the 1953 pipeline “in operation for another decade or more, prolonging the risk of a disastrous oil spill in our Great Lakes,” Lisa Wozniak, executive director at Michigan League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement.

“Creating a new authority to oversee the pipeline does not change the fact that our most precious natural resource will remain at risk. We urge lawmakers in the House to stand up for our Great Lakes and reject this 11th hour attempt to keep oil pumping in our Great Lakes.”

Sen. Adam Hollier of Detroit was the lone Democrat to vote for the bill — and the lone lawmaker to speak on the legislation from the floor prior to the vote. The measure passed in a 25-13 vote. Republican Sens. Joe Hune of Hamburg Township, Rick Jones of Grand Ledge and Tonya Schuitmaker of Lawton voted against the plan.  

Hollier noted the tunnel construction project would create a years-long job opportunity for laborers and said he was sympathetic with propane needs in the Upper Peninsula. Line 5 delivers a majority of the propane used in the region to heat homes.

“Any change to their supply would mean that people would be colder this winter,” said Hollier, who was sworn in last month to complete a partial term and will return next session. “They would have a much more difficult time providing heat and supporting their family.”

While Enbridge is paying for the tunnel, Snyder is proposing a $4.5 million state appropriation for oversight purposes in the current fiscal year. 

"If Enbridge would have paid for it, the first thing that would have happened is people would come out saying that they're paying for oversight and they're going to try to get away with something," said Sen. Tom Casperson, an Escanaba Republican who sponsored the tunnel legislation. 

The revised bill specifies that neither the state nor the authority can enter into an agreement to accept any liability for the planned tunnel.

"We are not on the hook for anything," Casperson said. "Enbridge takes on all liability here, and they've agreed to that. It's going into statute."

The tunnel authority would have a "joint defense agreement" with Enbridge to cover a variety of potential legal cases, said Ed Golder, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. But the authority would not have any direct costs in lawsuits because the state attorney general would have to provide defense or cover costs.

The tunnel plan now heads to the House for consideration next week. Rep. Lee Chatfield, a Levering Republican poised to become House Speaker next year, has voiced support.

“We’re doing all we can to place a solution on Gov. Snyder’s desk that enables the construction of an underground infrastructure corridor with the proper oversight to hold all parties accountable,” Chatfield said Tuesday.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality announced this week it issued Enbridge a permit to install an additional 48 anchor support structures into the lake bed to further secure the aging Line 5 dual pipelines.