Whitmer task force to identify Line 5 propane alternatives

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Fresh nuts, bolts and fittings are ready to be added to the east leg of the Line 5 pipeline near St. Ignace on June 8, 2017.

Lansing — As a battle over the fate of Line 5 heads to court, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Friday created a new task force to study propane delivery alternatives for the Upper Peninsula. 

Enbridge on Thursday sued the state after talks with Whitmer over an accelerated tunnel plan broke down. The governor demanded for a two-year timeline to shut down the aging oil and gas pipeline, which helps transport propane many U.P. residents use to heat their homes.

Whitmer’s new task force, created by executive order, is charged with identifying alternative propane delivery options in he event of a Line 5 shut down, along with ways to rein in other energy rates in high-cost regions of the U.P.

“Our jobs, economy and public health depend on the preservation of the Great Lakes, which literally define us as a state,” the governor said in a statement.

“Enbridge has a disappointing safety record in Michigan, and the dual pipelines that run through the Straits of Mackinac create an unacceptable risk of an oil spill by anchor strike or other means. Such an event would be catastrophic for The Great Lakes and our economy, and would send energy costs skyrocketing for UP families.”

The Enbridge lawsuit filed Thursday seeks court validation of a tunnel agreement the Canadian energy firm had brokered late last year with former Gov. Rick Snyder. Whitmer halted state action on the plan in March after Attorney General Dana Nessel invalidated an underlying law that had allowed the deal.

Whitmer said in April that she is open to a tunnel option but wanted a plan to get Line 5 out of the Great Lakes faster than the five-year to 10-year construction estimate. Her office claimed that Enbridge “walked away from the negotiating table” on Tuesday and chose litigation instead.

Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy disagreed with the governor’s characterization and said Friday the company remains “open to further discussions.”

Enbridge had already committed to “actions that advance the timeline” for the tunnel project, additional Line 5 safeguards during the construction period and other measures, Duffy said.

“But we cannot agree with the State’s position that the straits’ crossing be shut down on a timeline within which it is impossible to complete the tunnel because the energy is needed and the pipeline is safe.”

Roughly 25 percent of residents in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula rely on propane to heat their homes, and most of that propane comes from Line 5, according to the Whitmer administration. Beyond propane, UP residents are “currently incurring some of the highest electricity rates in the nation,” the governor’s office said.

The task force will act as an advisory body to Whitmer within the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. It will include 13 members, each appointed by the governor.

Whitmer’s order requires the task force to submit a propane alternative plan to the governor by March 31, 2020, and gives members another year to submit a report on electricity and other energy issues.

“This task force will help make recommendations that ensure the UP's energy needs are met in a manner that is reliable, affordable, and environmentally sound,” the governor said in a statement.

Propane access for the Upper Peninsula has been one of the primary arguments for supporters of Line 5 and the tunnel project.

The 66-year-old dual pipeline runs along the lake bed in the Straits of Mackinac, a turbulent area that connects Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. It carries 540,000 barrels a day of light crude oil and natural gas liquids.

If those fuels were transported by trucks, it would take an additional 2,150 tanker trucks a day on state roads to deliver the products, Enbridge has argued.

An October 2017 alternative analysis commissioned by the state found “there is no viable way” of moving Line 5 oil and gas on other pipelines, by rail or truck, Duffy said. “The tunnel not only ensures reliable energy delivery to the U.P., but to the entire State.”

Nessel, who campaigned on a pledge to shut down Line 5, applauded Whitmer for taking a “proactive approach” to energy needs in the Upper Peninsula by creating the task force.  

“Enbridge has made clear its primary focus is its bottom line,” Nessel said in a statement. “And while the governor and I work in tandem to decommission Line 5 as quickly as possible to protect our Great Lakes and the health and safety of our residents, her task force is a necessary step to ensure we meet the energy needs of all our state’s residents for generations to come.”

But state Rep. Beau LaFave, R-Iron Mountain, called the task force "a sham" that will waste time and money that would be better spent "getting Line 5 off the Straits' floor and safely into a tunnel underground."

. “A study of this exact issue was already conducted in 2017 that showed an energy pipeline underground is the safest — I repeat, safest — and cheapest way to deliver the energy resources all Michiganders are counting on, whether it’s to heat their homes or to transport and produce the commodities they use every day,” he said in a statement.

Enbridge insists that Line 5 remains safe. But an anchor strike last year dented the pipeline and ruptured nearby transmission cables, amplifying fears of a potential petroleum spill in the straits, a turbulent area that connects Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

The National Transportation Safety Board on Wednesday blamed human error and mechanical failure for damage caused by an anchor on the  Clyde S. VanEnkevort tug boat and the Erie Trader barge.

The resulting snarl at the bottom of the Great Lakes was so severe that when crew members discovered the barge’s 12,000-pound anchor had deployed two days later near Indiana they found it was missing both flukes on either side of the main anchor shaft, according to the report.

The anchor strike released about 800 gallons of dielectric mineral oil from three American Transmission Company cables, resulted in more than $100 million in damage to the lines and caused minor dents to Line 5.

Staff reporter Beth LeBlanc contributed