Enbridge to move forward with Line 5 tunnel construction bid process after getting panel OK

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A state panel on Wednesday signed off on documents Enbridge Energy will use to solicit bids from contractors for the eventual construction of a more than $500 million tunnel through the Straits of Mackinac. 

The tunnel, slated for completion in 2028 at the earliest, will house a new segment of the controversial Line 5 oil pipeline beneath the Straits of Mackinac. 

Two of three Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority members on Wednesday concurred on Enbridge's request for proposals for the project, with member Paul Novak absent because of work commitments. Chairman Mike Nystrom noted that complaints and concerns they'd received over the tunnel project were likely best addressed to agencies considering permits for the project — such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy and the Michigan Public Service Commission

This is Enbridge's Mackinaw Station for Line 5.

"We are not a regulatory agency," said Nystrom. "If you have concerns about this process, reaching out to those agencies is probably the best possible avenue because we do not have direct involvement in regulatory decisions like that."

Enbridge said Wednesday it was prepared to issue the request for proposals after the authority's concurrence and remained committed to starting construction within the Tunnel Agreement timeline, which requires the company to start construction within 180 days of receiving its last permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 

"To date, Enbridge has invested more than $100 million on the project," said company spokesman Ryan Duffy. "Enbridge remains intensely focused on obtaining the required permits to construct the project. While we do so, Enbridge is committed to the sustained and safe operation of Line 5." 

RFP timeline

Enbridge's request for proposals informs potential contractors that they should plan on starting construction of the roughly 4-mile tunnel no earlier than the first quarter of 2024. Construction is expected to take at least four years. 

The timeline would push completion to at least 2028, a decade after the state reached an agreement for construction of the tunnel and 75 years after the company obtained an easement in 1953 for Line 5's placement in the Straits of Mackinac. 

The tunnel agreement entered into by Enbridge and the state of Michigan in late 2018 requires the company to build an estimated $500 million tunnel beneath the Straits of Mackinac to house a new segment of Line 5. The current 68-year-old twin pipelines sit exposed on the lake bottom and have been a concern of environmental advocates for years because of their age and their vulnerability to incidents such as anchor strikes or the vagaries of water conditions. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer negotiated with Enbridge in 2019 to try to get the Canadian pipeline giant to shorten its tunnel completion timeframe to two years. When those negotiations failed, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Whitmer filed suit seeking to close the pipeline. Enbridge filed suit to keep it open. 

Whitmer eventually dismissed her lawsuit filed in November 2020 but Nessel and Enbridge still are pursuing theirs in federal court. 

Permitting delays have played a big part in pushing the construction timeline to 2028 after both the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Michigan Public Service Commission last year announcing more expansive reviews of the project. 

The public service commission is expected to give some clarity as to its decision process and timeline in March. The corps announced its expanded environment impact statement related to the tunnel project in June and the process can take up to two years to complete, though state officials noted a shorter timeline may be possible. 

"Given the work the corps has done since the application was submitted in April 2020, it's conceivable that the (environmental impact statement) process will be completed faster than what's allowed for under the statute," said Ryan Mitchell, innovative contracting manager for the Michigan Department of Transportation.

"From a contractual standpoint, it means the construction cannot commence previous to that permit being issued, if the permit is issued," he said. 

Enbridge's tunnel project manager Amber Pastoor said Enbridge's bidding and contracting process will run parallel to the corps' environmental review. 

"If we need to pump the brakes or accelerate a little bit we have those mechanisms" built into the process, she said.

The authority on Wednesday also approved a tribal consultation policy and memorandum of understanding for the hiring of an independent quality assurance expert who will report to the authority but be paid by Enbridge. The memo approved Wednesday brings clarity to the level of site and documentation access Enbridge must provide to the quality assurance expert, a detail the 2018 tunnel agreement was "vague" on, said Mitchell. 

New report on Canada impact

The approvals by the authority came the same day a report from Environmental Defence Canada argued that a closure of Line 5 — as pushed for by Whitmer and Nessel — would not devastate Canadian provinces relying on the fuel. Instead, the report said the closure would result in "modest" increases to gasoline and diesel fuel prices in Ontario and Quebec if the country were to adopt alternative transportation for the oil and refined products carried to Canada through Line 5.

The report suggests Enbridge's Line 78 — which travels from the southwest corner of Michigan east toward Sarnia — combined with existing rail and tanker capacity could make up for the shortfalls caused by a Line 5 closure so that gasoline prices would not increase more than $2.01 per barrel.

Enbridge would need to find another route for the 80,000 barrels of natural gas liquids moved each day on the pipeline, the report said. 

The report urged the government of Canada — which in October formally invoked a treaty with the U.S. over the potential closure of Line 5 — to assess alternative means of fuel transportation. 

"The impact of these changes on consumer prices for refined petroleum products such as gasoline and diesel fuel in Ontario and Quebec would likely be very modest, to the point that such changes would likely go unnoticed," the report said. 

The Bay Mills Indian Community, which has long been opposed to the pipeline, emphasized the importance of the study Wednesday. 

"This report only reaffirms what we have been saying all along – that Line 5 can be shut down with minimal impact. We urge the U.S. and Canadian governments to work together toward that end goal as quickly as possible,” said Whitney Gravelle, president for the Bay Mills Indian Community.

Enbridge refuted the claims of the study, arguing that Line 78 already is full and wouldn't be able to take on Line 5's load. 

"Environmental Defense Canada’s plan would put the environment at risk as it would burn more fuel to transport energy, clog critical roads and rail lines and create unnecessary energy dislocations while raising prices," Duffy said.