With Line 5 threat looming, Enbridge seeks to revive Whitmer tunnel talks

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Line 5 helps supply propane to heat homes in the Upper Peninsula and feeds refineries in Detroit and Toledo.

Lansing — Enbridge Energy has reached out to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office in hopes of jump-starting stalled negotiations over plans to move the company’s controversial Line 5 oil and gas pipeline into a new tunnel beneath the Straits of Mackinac.

But the company remains unwilling to agree to a set timeline for decommissioning the aging dual pipelines, a key sticking point for Whitmer, who is open to a tunnel deal but wants Enbridge to agree to Line 5 removal by a date certain.

CEO Al Monaco told The Detroit News that the Canadian energy giant contacted the Whitmer administration Thursday night “about some of the ways to go forward from here” and said the company remains willing and able to resume talks for the first time since June 4.

“We’re obviously very keen to engage,” Monaco said in a phone interview during a Michigan visit.

Attorney General Dana Nessel has threatened to take legal action against Enbridge and try and force a shut down if the Whitmer administration is unable to complete negotiations on a Line 5 alternative by the end of June.

Enbridge beat her to the punch earlier this month, asking the Michigan Court of Claims to rule on the validity of tunnel agreements the company had negotiated with former Gov. Rick Snyder.

While that court action was borne out of “frustration with the process,” Monaco said he thinks there’s actually “quite a bit of common ground” between the firm and Whitmer administration.

“The only real difference, when you really get down to it, is that we haven't resolved the issue of timing of removal of the existing line,” he said.

Whitmer is pushing Enbridge to remove Line 5 from the Straits of Mackinac within two years to eliminate the risk of a catastrophic oil spill in a turbulent body of water that connects Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

But even in the best-case scenario, the company says it would take until at least 2024 to obtain required permits and complete construction of the massive tunnel, which would be bored 100 feet below the lake bed and 4.5 miles across the Straits.

The company has vowed to pay for the project, but completing it in two years is “not physically possible,” Monaco said. “It has to be well planned, permitted, we have to talk to stakeholders, and it has to be executed well, safely and reliably.”

Forcing an early shutdown would lead to “untenable supply disruptions” for customers that rely on gas and light crude oil transported by the pipeline, including Upper Peninsula residents who use propane to heat their homes.

Whitmer, Monaco and other officials last met in person on June 4 but have not engaged in substantive negotiations since that time.

The governor “remains ready to continue talks with Enbridge about a firm shutdown date,” spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said Friday.

But the state is “unwilling to indefinitely risk unwilling to indefinitely bear the risk of a catastrophic oil spill in the Great Lakes, which nearly happened last April when a ship dragging a 12,000-pound anchor struck the pipeline,” said Brown, referencing an incident that dented Line 5.

She also questioned why Monaco “would fly to Michigan for media purposes but not to come back to the negotiating table to continue conversations.”

Enbridge continues to resist a new agreement with the state that would require it to decommission Line 5 by a certain date, citing the prospect of permitting delays or other issues that could be out of its control.

“The physical limitations of this preclude us from doing that,” Monaco said.

While environmentalists are urging Whitmer to try to shut down Line 5 — and Nessel has threatened to do so — the governor has not ruled out the possibility of a tunnel project, which could avoid a legal battle that might take longer than the construction process itself.

“Protracted litigation concerns me, and that’s why I was trying to see if we could have a date certain in the negotiations, but obviously Enbridge walked away from the table,” Whitmer said Thursday “They could come back. We’ll see.”

Enbridge has denied that it walked away from negotiations, and Monaco said Friday that “the contrary is true.”

In their June 4 meeting, Monaco said the company offered a few proposals to “bridge that gap” with the administration.

“I have to be honest, there didn't seem to be a lot of interest in working together,” he said.

Enbridge is offering to take steps to ensure the safety of Line 5 during the tunnel construction process and supplement existing leak detection systems, including more frequent inspections, ramping up “cathodic protection” coating,” Monaco said.

The company is also willing to station a boat on the water at all times to ensure staff is on hand 24 hours a day.

Beyond that, Monaco suggested the administration could issue another emergency order directing state agencies work with the company to ensure the permitting process is as effective and efficient as possible.

Nessel plans to file a response to Enbridge’s lawsuit by June 27. But beyond that, her office has not made any final decisions about other potential legal action, said spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney.

Monaco said the company “would have to defend” itself against any attempt to shut down the pipeline.

Line 5 helps supply propane to heat homes in the Upper Peninsula and feeds refineries in Detroit and Toledo, where Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine is urging Whitmer to “consider options to improve the safety of Line 5” rather than taking it offline.

Ohio has two refineries near the border that supply a “significant percent" of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel to Ohio and Southeast Michigan, DeWine and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted said in a Monday letter to Whitmer.

“As you know, losing Line 5 would also put more than 1,000 good-paying union jobs at risk in Ohio and Michigan,” they wrote. “Our state shave much at risk in terms of potential fuel price spikes, lost jobs, airline schedule disruptions and lost transportation project funding.”

Monaco praised the governor for her May order seeking to protect Line 5 from another accidental anchor strike. The April 2018 incident dented the dual pipelines and ruptured three nearby transmission cables owned by another company.

He said the administration and Enbridge both want to protect the Great Lakes.

“Our approach is always to collaborate,” Monaco said. “This is the first time I can remember that we’ve been in a situation like this with a state government.”