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.
- Michigan regulators approved a key permit Friday for the controversial Enbridge Energy Line 5 petroleum tunnel
- Commissioners said they considered multiple options, but found the tunnel the safest option to protect the Great Lakes from an oil spill
- Environmentalists decried the decision, saying they’re not convinced the tunnel is safe
Michigan utility regulators on Friday approved a key permit for the Line 5 tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac, putting Canadian oil company Enbridge Energy one step closer to breaking ground on the controversial project.
In a 2-0 vote with one member abstaining, the Michigan Public Service Commission granted Enbridge permission to re-route a 4-mile section of the 645-mile petroleum pipeline into a concrete tunnel beneath the waterway, if and when that tunnel is built.
Speaking before the commission’s vote, Chair Dan Scripps called the tunnel project the safest of multiple alternatives commissioners considered — one that would eliminate the possibility of what he labeled a “catastrophic” oil spill threat that looms as long as the pipeline remains vulnerable to ships’ anchors on the sandy bottom of a busy shipping channel.
“We need to get those pipelines off the bottomlands and out of the Great Lakes,” Scripps said, and the tunnel project represents “the best option.”
Friday’s ruling is a victory for the energy company in its years-long battle with environmental groups and state Democratic leaders including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel, who both campaigned on promises to remove Enbridge’s aging oil pipelines from Michigan waters.
In a statement, Enbridge spokesperson Ryan Duffy called the vote “a major step forward in making the Great Lakes Tunnel Project a reality, protecting the Great Lakes and securing the vital energy people in Michigan and surrounding region rely on every day. ”
Business and labor groups also lauded the decision, arguing the tunnel project will create jobs while protecting Michigan’s energy reliability.
“Union laborers are counting on the Great Lakes Tunnel,” said Geno Alessandrini, Sr., business manager for the Michigan Laborers District Council. “The Michigan Public Service Commission did the right thing granting approvals for the project.”
Environmentalists and Michigan Native American tribes condemned the decision, saying the project would violate tribal treaty rights and lock in decades more fossil fuel dependency at a time when scientists say humanity must rapidly switch to green energy or face dire climate consequences. They also say Enbridge has not proven that it can drill or operate the tunnel safely.
“The best climate scientists are telling us we have a very short window to decrease carbon emissions,” said Sean McBrearty, campaign coordinator with the anti-Line 5 group Oil & Water Don’t Mix. “And yet, we’re here talking about building an oil tunnel underneath the worst spot in the Great Lakes for an oil spill.”
McBrearty told Bridge Michigan that it’s likely Line 5 opponents will challenge the decision in court.
The Bay Mills Indian Community was among more than a dozen interveners in the case. All federally recognized tribes in Michigan have passed resolutions opposing the pipeline.
Tribal attorney Rebecca Liebing said “disappointment isn’t a big enough word” to describe Bay Mills’ reaction to the state’s permitting decision.
“There’s no ambiguity regarding how the tribes feel about this matter,” Liebing said, adding that “we’re not done fighting.”
The ruling caps more than three years of deliberation by the commission, whose three appointees regulate the state’s energy utilities. A decision had seemed imminent last year, but commissioners instead said they needed more information about safety, engineering and fire and explosion risks before voting.
In May, MPSC staff recommended issuing the permit, concluding that the tunnel would reduce the environmental risks Line 5 currently poses to the Great Lakes.
Speaking Friday, Commissioner Katherine Peretick said the MPSC has placed several safety-conscious limits on the permit. The company will be subjected to extra construction and testing requirements, will have to submit a risk management plan to the state, and will not be allowed to share the tunnel with third-party utilities without separate commission approval.
“I know that many of you will be disappointed by the decision,” Peretick said to the audience at the commission’s offices in Lansing. “But I can genuinely say that your comments, whether in writing, verbal, here in person or over the phone or (webinars), did make this process better.”
Both Whitmer and Nessel campaigned in their first term in office on a promise to close Line 5. But Enbridge has defied Whitmer’s shutdown orders since she took office, arguing Michigan had no authority over cross-border energy infrastructure between the U.S. and Canada that is already subject to federal regulations.
Whitmer spokesperson Stacey LaRouche said the governor’s goal has always been getting the pipelines out of the water as quickly as possible. Whitmer’s office is reviewing the MPSC decision, LaRouche said, and “the Governor will remain focused on protecting the Great Lakes and Michigan jobs.”
The battle has its roots in a 2010 catastrophic spill involving Enbridge’s Line 6B in southwest Michigan. The incident contaminated nearly 40 miles of the Kalamazoo River, and raised awareness about an even bigger environmental calamity awaiting Michigan if Enbridge’s 70-year-old Line 5 pipeline was to rupture in the straits.
Facing growing outrage from lawmakers and Michigan residents, Enbridge in 2018 struck a deal with the state during Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s final weeks in office, agreeing to move the pipeline into a concrete tunnel constructed beneath the lakebed.
At the time, Enbridge estimated the $500 million project would be complete by 2024. But projected costs have ballooned to more than double initial estimates, and construction won’t start for more than two years, if at all.
Enbridge can’t break ground without federal permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is expected to reach a decision in early 2026. Enbridge officials have decried that process as “inexplicably lethargic” and begged state officials for help.
The company’s opponents, including McBrearty, contend Enbridge’s timeline was never realistic and that the tunnel proposal is merely a stall tactic to justify continued operation of the existing open-water pipes until petroleum becomes largely obsolete. His group called on President Joe Biden to revoke the federal permit for Line 5, though Biden has kept his distance from the issue.
Speaking Friday, Scripps acknowledged Michigan is moving toward an oil-free future following the passage this month of a 100 percent clean energy mandate for state utilities.
“But this transition won’t happen overnight,” Scripps said, “and in the meantime we have a responsibility to approve the infrastructure needed to meet our energy needs and to take steps necessary to get the current pipelines off the bottomlands.”
While Enbridge waits on federal permits, it is also locked in a court battle with Nessel, who sued the company in 2019 seeking a Line 5 shutdown. The two sides are battling over which court — state or federal — should have jurisdiction over the case.
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Featured image: The Michigan Public Service Commission on Friday approved a key permit for Enbridge Energy’s proposed Line 5 tunnel, a victory for the Canadian energy giant in a years-long battle over the controversial project. (Bridge file photo)