Whitmer reopens talks with Enbridge; revised Line 5 tunnel deal an option
Lansing — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wants a faster plan to decommission Enbridge's Line 5 oil pipeline but is not ruling out the possibility of allowing the company to house a replacement in a tunnel deep beneath the Straits of Mackinac.
The East Lansing Democrat has re-opened talks with Enbridge after using an executive order to halt state action on a tunnel plan backed by GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder and the Republican-led Legislature but deemed invalid by Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat.
Whitmer campaigned on a pledge to get Line 5 out of the Straits but avoided direct comment on the prospect of constructing a tunnel beneath the lake bed. The tunnel project is opposed by environmental groups that backed her but supported by labor unions that see it as a major job creation opportunity for northern Michigan.
“If it can help me get the pipeline out of the water earlier, that’s something that is worth talking about,” Whitmer said in a Monday interview with The Detroit News editorial board, making clear a tunnel remains an option.
The deal brokered under Snyder would allow Line 5 to keep operating in the Straits while Enbridge obtains permits and builds a tunnel to house the replacement. But the potential seven- to 10-year timeline estimated by Snyder administration is “too long,” Whitmer said.
“If we can't hammer out a solution that gets the pipeline out of the water by a date certain that is quicker than what I think the Snyder administration tried to negotiate, then, you know, we’re going to have to look at all the alternatives,” she said, suggesting her administration could announce next steps within a month.
Under the agreement with Snyder, Enbridge would pay for construction of a shared “utility corridor” to be drilled 100 feet into bedrock below the lake bed. The deal required Enbridge to deactivate Line 5 when a replacement is operational in the tunnel, but it did not mandate the project be completed by a specific date.
In a feasibility study conducted for the state last year, Enbridge initially projected the tunnel project would take five to six years to complete at a cost of $350 million to $500 million.
That included time to secure at least 15 state and federal permits, complete environmental surveys and procure materials. The construction itself was projected to take about three years, including two years for tunnel boring.
The company’s target date for completion is 2024, said Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy.
“We continue to provide information to the governor’s office and to seek clarification from the administration on a path forward for the tunnel project,” Duffy said in a statement.
“We believe the project is the best way to protect the waters of the Great Lakes while ensuring families, manufacturers and other businesses safely receive the energy transported through Line 5.”
Litigation prompts talks
On the campaign trail, Whitmer said she would immediately begin the process of revoking the 1953 easement that allows Line 5 in the Straits. She cited fears of a possible leak from the 66-year-old dual pipeline that carries 540,000 barrels a day of light crude oil and natural gas liquids.
But the first-term governor has not yet moved to revoke the easement. Instead, she began her tenure by asking Nessel for a legal opinion on the 2018 law that created the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority, which finalized the deal Snyder had brokered.
Nessel called the law unconstitutional because the enabling legislation went “beyond the scope of what was disclosed in its title.” Any court ruling invalidating the law would apply retroactively, voiding the authority, its board and any of its actions, including the approval of a tunnel beneath the Straits of Mackinac to house Enbridge's Line 5 oil pipeline, the attorney general said in March.
Republican leaders in the state Legislature ridiculed the legal opinion that is only binding on state government agencies. Court challenges are expected.
“The prospect of years and years and years and million and millions and millions (of dollars) of litigation is something that I am cognizant of,” Whitmer said Monday, "and so certainly that’s a factor impacting the conversations as well.”
The governor said she is talking to stakeholders, including Enbridge, about next steps on Line 5.
“My goal is to get the pipeline out of water, and to make sure Yoopers have access to affordable energy,” Whitmer said, referencing Upper Peninsula residents who rely on propane for home heating. “And one way or another those are those are the two things that I got to make sure we do.”
The future of the dual pipeline pits two vocal Whitmer constituencies against one another.
Environmental groups have long called on the state to shut down Line 5 and criticized the tunnel plan brokered by the Snyder administration. But organized labor unions argue it would create jobs while mitigating environmental risk.
“Our position still remains that if the governor is serious about wanting to protect the Great Lakes from a massive oil spill, the only way to do that is to decommission the Line 5 pipeline,” said Sean McBrearty of Clean Water Action.
“There is no way of expediting some sort of tunnel project that would be completed in a quick enough time frame” to reduce the risk of catastrophe, he said.
Motivated by spill risk
Enbridge insists that Line 5 remains safe. But an anchor strike last year dented the pipeline and ruptured nearby transmission cables, amplifying fears of potential petroleum spill in the Straits, a turbulent area that connects Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.
A worst-case scenario spill would release up to 58,000 barrels of crude oil into the Great Lakes and affect more than 400 miles of shoreline in Michigan, Wisconsin and Canada, according to a 2018 assessment by Michigan Technological University researchers.
The proposed tunnel would get Line 5 out of the water and reduce risk, “which is what the governor wants, but also bring about other positive things in that area,” said Pat Devlin, CEO of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council.
“When she steps back and looks at all the facts, I think she’ll agree with us that this is the way to go,” Devlin said.
Enbridge has not yet begun rock and soil sampling that would proceed boring at the tunnel site, Duffy said. By reconsidering the project, Devlin argued, the Whitmer administration has “wasted” time that could have sped up Line 5 removal.
“There’s dialogue and there’s discussion," he said. “We feel that’s very positive. It hasn’t been a closed door where nobody’s talking. I think up to this point, we’re feeling positive that a good outcome is inevitable.”
From the environmental perspective, McBearty said the best course would be for Whitmer to issue a 90-day letter to Enbridge announcing plans to revoke its Line 5 easement and then order the Michigan Public Service Commission to examine and approve alternative energy supplies for the Upper Peninsula.
“We’re going to continue advocating and pressuring the governor and administration authorities to move toward decommissioning the pipeline and begin the process as soon as possible,” he said.
McBrearty urged the Whitmer administration to engage the public in any Line 5 decisions, something that did not happen in the final months of the Snyder administration as officials raced to complete the Enbridge deal.
As a citizen, Whitmer said she was frustrated by that lack of transparency and vowed her administration will do better.
“When we have an idea of where we think we can be headed, we’re going to get around the state and make sure people understand how and why we get to the conclusion that we do,” she said. “But I haven’t prejudged it. I just know that my goal is to protect the Great Lakes and get energy to the U.P.”