State panel to discuss Line 5's emissions impact as it considers new segment

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A state commission tasked with giving some of the final approvals to the relocation of a new segment of Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac said Wednesday it will not consider whether there is a public need for the oil pipeline. 

The Michigan Public Service Commission said the need for the dual pipeline has been established since it was granted an easement in 1953. The commission also ruled that its review of the pipeline would be limited to the four-mile segment that would be located in a tunnel beneath the Straits of Mackinac, not the entirety of the pipeline's 641 miles. 

Enbridge has a station near the Straits of Mackinac for Line 5, which transports up to 540,000 barrels per day of light crude oil, light synthetic crude and natural gas liquids.

But the three-member commission said it will consider arguments about the greenhouse gas emissions the pipeline may create. 

Parties will be permitted "to introduce evidence addressing greenhouse gas emissions 'and any pollution, impairment, or destruction arising from the activity proposed in the application,'” the commission said in a Wednesday statement.

The order allows parties to submit evidence of any greenhouse gas emissions that could result from the fossil fuels transported in the pipeline as well as evidence of alternative pollution should the segment be shut down under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's order. 

"The Commission said it was not prejudging the issue but wants a full record on which to base potential decisions if the Straits portion of Line 5 is no longer operational," the commission's statement said. 

Enbridge said Wednesday it was "pleased" with the decision and planned to continue to work with the commission as it reviews the application. 

"Our aim is simple: To replace the two pipelines in the Straits with an even safer pipeline encased in a concrete tunnel well below the lakebed," company spokesman  Ryan Duffy said. "This totally eliminates anchor strikes, improves safety and environmental protections, and continues to provide Michiganders and neighboring states with the energy they need."

Environmental groups applauded the commission's consideration of emissions and argued the replacement of a 67-year-old pipeline was not the path to a "clean energy economy" in Michigan. 

“Should the tunnel become a reality, Michigan is handcuffed to a century of continued use of fossil fuels." said Jennifer McKay, policy director for Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council. "This will result in an increase in droughts, severe storms, and flooding events that can amplify the risk of erosion, sewage overflow, and flood damage.”

Enbridge asked the Michigan Public Service Commission in April 2020 for permission to replace and relocate its 67-year-old Line 5 segment in the Straits of Mackinac. The commission has authority over the placement of new crude oil and petroleum pipeline projects. 

The request came after a 2018 agreement with Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder, under which the company would build a $500 million tunnel beneath the straits where a new segment of Line 5 will be located. 

The agreement came after years of pleas from environmental groups to shutter the dual pipeline out of concern for the disastrous effects a potential leak into the Great Lakes would have. 

Whitmer, who campaigned on promises to shut down the line, revoked Enbridge's easement through the Straits of Mackinac in November and gave the company through May 12 to stop operations.

Enbridge sued to stop the shutdown order, and the parties have been engaged in litigation since. The state and Enbridge had their first mediation meeting last week.