Finley: Shut Line 5, and then what?

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News
Oil pipeline operator Enbridge moves under the Mackinac Bridge on their way to inspect their controversial Line 5 under the Straits of Mackinac on June 8, 2016.

It sounds like a simple solution: Shut down Enbridge Line 5 and protect the precious Great Lakes from the risk of a devastating oil spill.

It's what everyone with a green conscience wants. And Attorney General Dana Nessel is threatening to do just that by the end of the month if Gov. Gretchen Whitmer can't reach a deal with Enbridge on moving the lines into a tunnel. But then what?

The dual pipelines under the Straits of Mackinac carry 23 million gallons of petroleum products each day between Michigan's two peninsulas. 

Included in that volume is 55 percent of the propane used to heat homes in the state, with much of it going to the Upper Peninsula. Much of the crude oil refined into gasoline also runs through Line 5, as does the petroleum derivatives used in agriculture and manufacturing across the state.

Environmentalists pretend an immediate shutdown of Line 5 will wean Michigan from fossil fuels and deliver with the stroke of a pen its conversion to renewable energy.

That's not going to happen. Petroleum products will be essential for maintaining our quality of life for many decades to come.

The products that move through Line 5 are going to keep moving, and as long as they move, they'll present some level of risk to the environment.

Turn off the valve to the pipelines and other means of transporting those 23 million gallons will be utilized. The options are truck, rail and freighter.

While there are vessels on the Great Lakes that carry refined petroleum products, none currently transport crude oil, making water transport less likely.

To move Line 5's volume on the highways would put an additional 2,150 tanker trucks a day on state roads. Imagine what that would do to traffic on Interstate 75.

Trains are perhaps the most efficient method, but that choice would demand adding 800 tanker cars to the rails daily. And to reach many locations, their loads eventually would have to be transferred to trucks.

All those modes of transportation carry a greater risk of ecology-damaging and life-threatening spills and accidents than does Line 5, which has never leaked in 60 years.

The solution worked out by former Gov. Rick Snyder and Enbridge to build a $500 million tunnel deep beneath the lake bed seems the best approach for both the environment and the economy. Last week, at Whitmer's request, Enbridge offered to shorten the construction timetable to five years from eight. Meanwhile, it will continue its intense monitoring of Line 5's integrity.

An agreement has to be reached quickly, apart from Nessel's grandstanding deadline. If it's going to build the tunnel on an accelerated timeline, Enbridge needs to bring in a specialized ship from the North Sea to do core samples. 

It's a lengthy and expensive endeavor, and must be started in time to complete the work before ice and winter storms return to the Straits.

Someday, we may live in a world in which wind, solar, composting, recycling and other green means satisfy all our material needs. 

But today, we still live in a world that can't live without the stuff that moves through Line 5.