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The Highland Eagle is anchored in the Straits of Mackinac, at work drilling core samples in preparation for construction of a four-mile tunnel to contain the twin Line 5 pipelines.

Starting the work this week is a $40 million gamble for Enbridge, the Canadian company that is building the tunnel.

Enbridge is still negotiating with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for approval to dig the tunnel, and is fighting a lawsuit filed by Attorney General Dana Nessel, who is asking the Ingham County Circuit Court to order the immediate shutdown of Line 5.

Bringing the ship to the straits from the Irish Sea could be seen as a taunt to the politicians, who campaigned against the tunnel without offering an alternative for moving the vital petroleum products it carries.

In reality, Enbridge has little choice but to start the work on faith if it hopes to keep its promise to finish the $500 million tunnel within five years.

I toured the Highland Eagle last week when it docked in Detroit on its way to northern Michigan, and got a better sense of what a daunting undertaking it will be to get the tunnel opened on that tight deadline.

And nothing can proceed until the core samples are taken. For the next 80 or so days, crews will drill up to 24 holes into the rock 115 to 220 feet below the lake bed to get a clear picture of the materials the tunnel will pass through.

That work has to be done in the warm weather months, before ice begins forming on the lakes. Had Enbridge waited until a deal was in place, it would have set back construction by at least a year. The work in the straits is proceeding 24-hours a day, with two teams alternating every 28 days. 

The samples will go to a lab for analysis, and the data will be used to determine what sort of boring machine will be needed to do the work.

Each boring machine is custom made and designed to minimize time-consuming cutting teeth changes.

Building the machine takes at least a year. The hope is to start boring in time to open the 10-foot diameter tunnel in 2024. Once the boring begins, the machine will move at an average pace of 40-feet per day.

It's a long, elaborate process, and Enbridge hopes the information gleaned from the core samples will minimize the chance of unexpected delays. 

Permits for the drilling were obtained from the state in the waning days of the Snyder administration. No additional authorizations have been granted. 

If it fails to reach agreement with Whitmer, or if Nessel is successful in blocking the tunnel in court, Enbridge will have sunk $40 million into the lakebed for nothing.

But if the politicians stop pandering to environmental extremists and give the tunnel the go ahead, Michigan in a few short years will have protected both its lakes and its energy supplies. It's a good bet.

nfinley@detroitnews.com 

Catch “The Nolan Finley Show” weekdays 7-9 a.m. on 910 AM Superstation.

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