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Republican legislators are working with Gov. Rick Snyder's office on changes to the proposed oversight body that would have authority over the construction and operation of a utility corridor in the Straits of Mackinac. 

The focus of the proposed Line 5 tunnel has been the protection of the Great Lakes and energy stability, not the oversight decision, said Snyder spokesman Ari Adler. 

"Legislators appear to favor an alternative of using a new authority and Gov. Snyder supports that decision," Adler said. 

Rep. Lee Chatfield, a Republican northern Michigan lawmaker and incoming House speaker, and Sen. Tom Casperson, an Escanaba Republican who sponsored legislation enabling the bridge authority to oversee the project, both said Monday that they were working on legislation that would provide for a separate body other than the bridge authority to oversee the project.

“That’s been the point of contention,” Casperson said of the bridge authority’s role in tunnel oversight. “A lot of people who oppose that support the tunnel.”

Casperson said he and Chatfield agree on the need for a new oversight body and hope to introduce new legislation this week.

Michigan's Republican-led Senate on Wednesday delayed a planned vote on Casperson's legislation, hours after a Senate panel had approved the proposal in a 3-2 vote.

Chatfield of Levering said Monday that the plan to have Enbridge build and pay for the utility corridor through the Straits of Mackinac is a “no brainer,” but he said he didn’t believe the bridge authority was best equipped to oversee the project.

“I do not wish to see them distracted by another job, and because of that, I am pushing to create an entity that can meet this obligation instead of the bridge authority,” Chatfield wrote.

On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof said the chamber would “pause” because “we just don’t quite have it right.” Several people had voiced support for a new authority to oversee the Line 5 tunnel, instead of delegating that responsibility to the Mackinac Bridge Authority, he said

“The administration and Enbridge are in negotiations,” Meekhof, R-West Olive, said Thursday. “I am not in on that negotiation.”

House Speaker Tom Leonard believes the tunnel is the best option available to protect the Great Lakes and heating needs of northern Michigan residents, said Leonard's spokesman Gideon D'Assandro.

"He will support any plan that can get it done," D'Assandro said.

The Canadian energy company has operated its Line 5 pipeline since 1953. The line carries as much as 540,000 barrels a day of light crude oil and natural gas liquids through the Upper Peninsula and Lower Michigan from Wisconsin to Ontario, Canada.

Environmentalists have called for the shutdown of Line 5’s segment through the Straits of Mackinac, worried about a spill similar to the 2010 oil spill in the Kalamazoo River.

Under a deal with Snyder announced in early October, Enbridge would build the shared utility tunnel, transfer ownership to the existing Mackinac Bridge Authority and then lease it back for 99 years. The project is expected to take seven to 10 years and cost $350 million to $500 million.

The reconsideration was seen as “a step in the right direction,” but wasn’t enough to appease environmental groups opposed to the 10-year timeline under which the pipeline could continue to operate, any government partnerships with Enbridge or a cap on the company’s financial liability in the event of a spill.  

Any legislation that allows the pipelines to remain on the bottom of the Great Lakes for another 10 years “should be dead on arrival,” said Sean McBrearty, a coordinator for the Oil & Water Don’t Mix campaign.  

“Any new deal or new entity is going to be rushed and potentially flawed,” McBrearty said, noting that the task is best left up to incoming Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com       

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