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Mackinac Island — Enbridge Energy has notified Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that it can commit to finishing a tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac and stop transporting oil through its aging pipeline by 2024. 

The five-year timeline was listed as the earliest end date when Enbridge first signed an agreement for the tunnel with Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder at the end of 2018. But Enbridge, in a recent letter to Whitmer, committed to that 2024 deadline rather than the maximum 10-year timeline it had been allowed in the agreement with Snyder. 

Enbridge's letter to the governor included a detailed timeline of plans for geotechnical, permitting and design work through 2021 and construction between 2021 and 2024, according to a Thursday statement by the Canadian company.

"Assuming we are able to move through the permitting process without delay, we believe the tunnel can be under construction in 2021 and in service as soon as early 2024," Enbridge said. "As previously committed, operation of the current Line 5 would cease immediately following the placement into service of the replacement pipeline in the tunnel."

The company estimates it could bore and construct the tunnel at an average of 40 feet per day over two years starting in late 2021 and finishing toward the end of 2023. The new Line 5 would be commissioned in the first half of 2024.

The company said it was prepared to proceed with geotechnical and permitting work this summer but "is awaiting the state’s decision on supporting that path forward."

Whitmer on Thursday told reporters that a potential five-year timeline is "certainly moved up, which tells me that perhaps we can make it even better."

"I am concerned that if we don't have a date certain of when that pipeline comes out of the water that the attorney general's going to want to go to court," Whitmer said. "Going to court creates a lot of uncertainty. We could be locked in litigation for a long time while the pipeline stays in the bottom of the water."

Line 5 transports about 23 million gallons of oil and natural gas a day through the Upper Peninsula, including a four-mile, dual-pipeline stretch through the Straits of Mackinac.

The line has long been a source of concern among environmentalists because of the possibility of an oil spill in the Great Lakes. Those concerns were exacerbated last year when an anchor gouged the line. 

In late March, Attorney General Dana Nessel in a formal legal opinion declared unconstitutional a law passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature in December creating an authority to oversee construction of a tunnel to house Line 5 and other utilities. She argued the law was invalid “because its provisions go beyond the scope of what was disclosed in its title.”

Whitmer quickly ordered state agencies to halt their work on the project based on Nessel's opinion and entered talks with Enbridge to find a way to build the tunnel more expediently. 

This week, Nessel said she would move to shutter Line 5 by the end of June if Whitmer didn't reach a new agreement with the company.

On Thursday, Whitmer said she respected Nessel and would continue to craft an agreement regarding the utility tunnel construction that accelerated the pipeline’s removal.

“We share the same goal of getting the oil out of the water,” the governor said. “I’m trying to make sure we do it in a responsible way that protects our water and gets it done once and for all.”

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3661

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