Enbridge: Federal review of Line 5 tunnel permit is ‘inexplicably lethargic’

Enbridge: Federal review of Line 5 tunnel permit is ‘inexplicably lethargic’
October 4, 2023 Bridge Michigan

By Kelly House, Bridge Michigan

The Great Lakes News Collaborative includes Bridge Michigan; Circle of Blue; Great Lakes Now at Detroit Public Television; and Michigan Radio, Michigan’s NPR News Leader; who work together to bring audiences news and information about the impact of climate change, pollution, and aging infrastructure on the Great Lakes and drinking water. This independent journalism is supported by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. Find all the work HERE.

  • Canadian oil giant Enbridge has spent years awaiting permits for the Line 5 tunnel
  • Citing delays in the process, the company has accused U.S. regulators of foot-dragging
  • Enbridge wants Michigan officials to weigh in, but Line 5 opponents say that is inappropriate

Complaining that federal regulators are unreasonably delaying a key permit for the Line 5 tunnel project under the Straits of Mackinac, Enbridge Energy has asked a state oversight panel for help.

The request came Monday during a meeting of the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority, a trio of state appointees tasked with overseeing Enbridge’s project to replace the lake bottom segment of the 70-year-old pipeline with a new segment encased in an underground tunn

The Line 5 pipeline carries petroleum products 645 miles from Wisconsin to Ontario, crossing the 4-mile Straits of Mackinac in two pipes that sit in the open water along the lake bed.


“We applied for what we thought in all circumstances would be both robust and expeditious permit processes,” said Tom Schwartz, Enbridge’s senior vice president of strategic projects and partnerships.

“The … process has not met those expectations.”

Enbridge officials said they are at loggerheads with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over how long it should take to approve or deny federal permits the company needs to start building the tunnel.

In an Aug. 18 letter to the tunnel authority, Enbridge complained of an “inexplicably lethargic” permit review.

Under the Corps’ current schedule, a decision is expected in early 2026. That puts Enbridge several years behind schedule.

At one time, the Canadian energy giant hoped to finish building a $500 million tunnel by 2024. The timeline will now extend well beyond that, and if the project gets approval, could cost double or more than initial estimates.

During Monday’s meeting, Schwartz suggested that anti-pipeline public comments may be influencing the Corps’ timeline.

But Ryan Mitchell, the Michigan Department of Transportation contact for the tunnel project, said Corps officials have cited “a large volume of work” as the reason for the years-long permit review.

Corps officials did not speak at Monday’s meeting, but have cited the need to deeply scrutinize environmental impacts of the proposed tunnel.

Line 5 opponents panned Enbridge’s complaints as an attempt to avoid accountability for the tunnel project’s possible risks.

“When you’re talking about drilling through the most sensitive spot in the Great Lakes for an oil spill, you really ought to be taking a very thorough look,” said Sean McBrearty, coordinator of the anti-Line 5 coalition Oil & Water Don’t Mix.

“Enbridge doesn’t get to decide what the Army Corps’ timeline looks like in an effort to avoid accountability.”

Enbridge contends that the Corps has missed several milestones by months, making it questionable whether the 2026 deadline will be met.

Following another delay in July, Schwartz said, “we decided we needed some help.”

“What help, if any, are you asking for at this point?” Corridor Authority member Andrew Doctoroff asked.

Schwartz responded that as the proposed tunnel’s ultimate owner, the authority should participate in the permitting process.

He didn’t elaborate on how authority members should engage, and the tunnel authority didn’t respond to Enbridge’s request on Monday.

But Chair Paul Novak made it clear that the authority will not consider any type of legal action against the Corps.

Schwartz said Enbridge is set to meet with Corps officials Tuesday to discuss the timeline.

While Enbridge negotiates with the Corps, it also awaits a state decision on whether to grant key state permits for the tunnel project.

The Michigan Public Service Commission, which regulates energy projects in Michigan, could rule this fall on whether Enbridge can move its pipeline inside the would-be tunnel.

Enbridge is also locked in a legal battle with the state over the existing 70-year-old pipeline. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel wants to shut down the pipeline, but has suffered repeated defeats in court.

The two sides are currently battling over what court — state or federal — should have jurisdiction over the case.

Catch more news at Great Lakes Now: 

Climate change is harming Michigan hunting and fishing, groups warn lawmakers

Featured image: Enbridge Energy wants to replace a 4-mile segment of the Line 5 pipeline, which sits at the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac, with a new segment buried in a tunnel beneath the lake bed. (Bridge file photo)


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