Enbridge to face cross-examination about Line 5 tunnel at state hearing

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Enbridge Energy on Friday will continue to push for its controversial tunnel project to relocate Line 5 beneath the Straits of Mackinac before the Michigan Public Service Commission during a virtual hearing.

The company wants to build a tunnel that would hold a new segment of the dual pipeline and protect it from the currents of the straits and anchor strikes. Environmentalists have opposed the tunnel and backed the Whitmer administration's efforts to shut down the pipeline as an environmental threat. 

A fuel tank at the Enbridge Energy terminal in Superior, Wisconsin. Enbridge is pushing for a tunnel to house Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac to transport liquified natural gas and oil.

Commission officials said the sessions will feature cross examination of Enbridge’s witnesses by attorneys for the project's opponents. It will likely be the bulk of the initial cross examination time.

Others who could be called include PSC staff members, said commission spokesman Matt Helms. Eight Enbridge officials have already testified and could be crossed examined. Administrative Law Judge Dennis Mack will oversee the process.

The Public Service Commission is reviewing whether to approve a permit for the $500 million project proposed by Enbridge of Canada and could reach a decision sometime this year.

Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy said the goal is to be as "transparent as possible and address remaining questions associated with placing Line 5 at the Straits of Mackinac inside the Great Lakes Tunnel."

"By investing in the Great Lakes Tunnel, Enbridge is not only fulfilling its 2018 obligation to the state of Michigan, it is making a safe pipeline safer, assuring long term energy resiliency and reliability and supporting Michigan jobs and the economy," he said.

Duffy said compared to truck, rail, or lake-going barges, "pipelines are the safest mode of transport for moving fuel."

"Pipelines have lower emissions, and are more reliable and affordable," he added. "Placing the pipeline in the Great Lakes Tunnel also better protects the Great Lakes over the long-term."

But groups of environmentalists and several Native America tribes who want the project killed are also hoping to get more details that would force the commission to deny the tunnel approval.

Sean McBrearty the Michigan legislative and policy director of Clean Water Action, said what the group is hoping to get a complete review of the Line 5 tunnel, which he argues didn't happen during the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy permit process. 

McBreaty said he hopes that testimony will also be heard from an expert who raised the possibility of explosions in the tunnel causing oil releases.

"MPSC appears to be taking a broader look here," McBrearty said. "We are also very hopeful that the testimony of several Michigan tribal leaders that Enbridge tried to strike from the record will be heard. The unique treaty rights of Native American tribes really need to play a role in this process. The Straits of Mackinac is such an important cultural site for them."

In late 2018, Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder entered an agreement with Enbridge to construct the tunnel. Construction on the more than $500 million project, according to recent bid documents, likely won't begin until 2024 and wouldn't finish until 2028. 

Attorney General Dana Nessel has sought to shut down the pipeline with a lawsuit on the grounds that the 1953 easement was a public nuisance, violated the public trust doctrine and is likely to cause pollution. 

All of the involved parties that include opponents like the Bay Mills Indian Community and the Attorney General's office to advocates like the National Propane Gas Association and Michigan Laborers’ District Council have deadlines of Feb. 18 for initial legal briefs and March 11 for reply briefs.

Following those deadlines, the commission can decide the case at any time, but no date has been set for officials to issue an order or decision, Helms said

"Our priority is to move the project forward in compliance with all state and federal regulatory and environmental requirements," Duffy said.