Feds order environmental study of Line 5 tunnel plan, delaying construction

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Federal officials have determined that an exploration of the environmental impact of the construction of a Line 5 tunnel through the Straits of Mackinac is necessary before a permit is granted to Enbridge.

The requirement "could add years" to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' review of the tunnel construction permit, the National Wildlife Federation said Wednesday.

Enbridge acknowledged Wednesday that the federal decision to require an environmental impact statement instead of an environmental assessment will push back the start of construction.

Enbridge's Highland Eagle vessel stopped in Detroit on Wednesday, July 10, 2019, before heading to the Straits of Mackinac. The company plans to use the ship to collect rock samples along the lake bed where it wants to build a tunnel to house Line 5.

The Canadian oil giant is still trying to determine how long the decision will delay construction.

"Permitting is the driver of project timing; when we receive all permits, we will start construction," Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy said in a statement. 

The company has spent more than $100 million on the tunnel project so far and plans to complete construction within the timeframe in the tunnel agreement, Duffy said. 

The Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority expects to be updated eventually if the timeline for construction is substantially altered, authority Chairman Mike Nystrom said.  

"Once permits are approved, the authority’s responsibility is to make sure that the citizens of the state of Michigan end up with a tunnel that is built for longevity and safety," Nystrom said.

The federal directive comes amid biweekly meeting between the United States and Canada regarding the future of the pipeline as Canada lobbies to keep it operating through tunnel construction. 

The U.S. State Department said Thursday Canada remains a key partner in energy trade and efforts to protect the environment. 

"We are tracking closely the engagement between the State of Michigan and Enbridge on matters related to Line 5 and hope the parties can come to a mutually agreeable resolution," a state department spokesperson said. 

Permit approvals by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were some of the last approvals — besides authorization from the Michigan Public Service Commission — that Enbridge was awaiting to begin construction of the Great Lakes Tunnel Project. 

In a 2018 feasibility study, Enbridge initially projected the tunnel project would take five to six years to complete at a cost of $350 million to $500 million.

The company gave a seven-year to 10-year maximum timeline for completing the tunnel after entering an agreement with the state in 2018, but was pressured by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2019 to shorten the timeline to two years. 

The disagreement over the project's duration, exacerbated by Whitmer's vows on the campaign trail to shutter the line, has led to rounds of litigation, the most recent triggered by the governor's November rescission of Enbridge's easement in the Straits. 

She ordered the company to shutter the pipeline by mid-May, but Enbridge refused to do so absent a court order. The two parties are currently in mediation in federal court.

The Army for Civil Works, which oversee the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, announced Wednesday that it would require the corps to develop an economic impact statement regarding the permit application because of "the potential impacts significantly affecting the quality of the human environment."

The review will consider all possible impacts and alternatives in an "open, transparent and public process" before making a decision on the permit application, said Jaime Pinkham, acting assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works. 

"The (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) received thousands of public comments and tribal input on the proposed project, which warrant further review through an (Environmental Impact Statement), including potential impacts to navigation," Pinkham said in a statement. 

The National Wildlife Federal celebrated the federal decision and said it re-affirmed "this proposed project is close to a decade away, if ever." 

“From the beginning, Enbridge has fought review of environmental impact, a review of need, a review of impacts to tribal cultural resources and sites, and a technical review of the construction and design," said Beth Wallace, Great Lakes campaigns manager for the National Wildlife Federation.

The federal decision comes a few months after the Michigan Public Service Commission said it will consider arguments about the greenhouse gas emissions the pipeline may create before granting final state authorization. 

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.