Army Corps extends Line 5 tunnel review, delaying project at least 18 months

Carol Thompson
The Detroit News

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced Thursday it will take an additional 18 months to review Enbridge's permit application for its proposed Line 5 tunnel project under the Straits of Mackinac, pushing off a potential completion date for the tunnel until 2030.

The Army Corps said it plans to publish its draft environmental impact statement for the project in the spring of 2025. It originally had planned to publish the statement later this year.

"We greatly appreciate the meaningful input received throughout scoping and will use this information to shape studies and continuing consultations throughout development of our draft environmental impact statement" Detroit District Commander Lt. Col. Brett Boyle said.

Enbridge Energy has proposed building a tunnel to replace the pair of 70-year-old Line 5 pipelines that currently transfer crude oil and natural gas along the lakebed of the Straits of Mackinac. The tunnel would be bored through bedrock between 30 and 370 feet below the straits.

Enbridge has proposed decommissioning the existing Line 5 pipelines “by purging, cleaning, and abandoning in place” when the tunnel is finished, the Corps said.

Enbridge Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer Mike Fernandez said the corp’s new, extended timeline for reviewing the project is disappointing and surprising. He said the company is in “conversation” with the Biden White House about accelerating the timeline.

“Enbridge is very committed to building the Great Lakes tunnel,” Fernandez said. “We’re committed to doing everything in our power to be ready to construct it, but we need permits.”

Line 5 is part of Enbridge’s Lakehead system, which starts in Superior, Wisconsin and ends in Sarnia, Canada.

The tunnel would take about four years to build, he said, meaning it wouldn’t be operable until 2030 if the permit is approved in 2026.

“We can’t do anything in terms of actually putting a shovel in the ground and doing it until we’ve got that permit in hand from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” he said. “So all of that said, our main aim now is really to think about, is there any streamlining of that process? Is there any way to expedite the process?”

The construction of the tunnel requires permits under the federal Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 and the Clean Water Act. The Army Corps is charged with determining whether Enbridge's application passes muster.

The Corps opened its initial public comment period for the scope of the project from August through October last year. It received more than 17,000 comments.

Sean McBrearty, Clean Water Action’s Michigan legislative and policy director, said he was happy to see the Army Corps take its review seriously.

“Building an oil tunnel under the Great Lakes is a foolish project that should never be able to be permitted, and Army Corps is likely taking longer here than they anticipated because they’re seeing all the holes in this plan that have been pointed out through the public comment," McBrearty said.

Business and construction groups, in contrast, denounced the Army Corps' new timetable for reviewing Enbridge's tunnel application.

"Michigan voters, small businesses and leaders across the political spectrum support the Great Lakes Tunnel and want it built quickly," said Brian Calley, president and CEO of the Small Business Association of Michigan and former Michigan lieutenant governor under the Snyder administration that negotiated the tunnel deal. "The lack of urgency by the Army Corps of Engineers is a disservice to all Michiganders. Every month the project is delayed pushes this important economic and environmental investment down the line." 

As Enbridge’s permit application grinds through the Corps’ environmental review, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel is fighting to shut down the pipelines. She is trying to get her case remanded back into a more favorable state court. Last month, Nessel asked the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to send the case back to state court. 

“This pipeline poses a grave threat to Michigan and to our Great Lakes,” Nessel said at the time.

"Enbridge initially agreed that this case belonged in state court and waited two years to move it to federal court. I am grateful that the district court has now recognized that an appeal is appropriate, and I look forward to raising these important issues in the Sixth Circuit."