Whitmer doesn’t rule out Enbridge tunnel plan

By: - April 4, 2019 4:01 pm
Gov. Whitmer signing an environmental measure

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signs environmental measures alongside Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and DEQ chief Liesl Clark, Feb. 4, 2019 | Nick Manes

Speaking with reporters this week, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer did not rule out ultimately supporting a plan from Canadian oil titan Enbridge to build a new buried pipeline beneath the Straits of Mackinac.

Whitmer, along with Attorney General Dana Nessel, took action last week to stop construction plans for a planned new pipeline 100 feet beneath Great Lakes bedrock that would eventually replace the 66-year-old Line 5, which environmental supporters have said is a step toward making good on a campaign promise to shut down the existing oil pipeline.

Enbridge's Line 5.
National Wildlife Federation

But when asked by reporters Wednesday at a graduation for Michigan State Police troopers whether she intends to shut down Line 5, Whitmer replied that her goal “is to get the oil out of the water as quickly as possible.”

Asked whether burying a new pipeline in an underground tunnel would fit that criteria, the governor again avoided specificity. Instead, she indicated her frustration with the fact that the law boxed her out of involvement in the deal between the state and Enbridge by creating an independent board to oversee the new tunnel’s construction.

“I’ve always said I want the oil out of the water. So I didn’t weigh in on the tunnel, I weighed in on the fact that they were trying to tie my hands for seven to 10 years,” Whitmer said. “And that’s precisely why I asked the question from the attorney general that I did.”

When asked to clarify the comment — particularly whether it could mean the governor may ultimately support the Enbridge tunnel project — Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said she “can only reiterate that we are reviewing all of our options on how best to move forward.”

Enbridge’s existing pipeline carries about 23 million gallons of crude oil and some natural gas liquids through the intersection of lakes Michigan and Huron each day.

Whitmer asked Nessel in January to review the issue. In the AG’s legal opinion released last Thursday, Nessel found a Lame Duck law that created a new political authority to oversee the project unconstitutional.

For now, all eyes are on Enbridge and the state Legislature to see what happens next. Any of those parties could theoretically mount a formal legal challenge against Nessel’s opinion as part of an effort to get the pipeline project flowing again.

But if Whitmer ends up supporting the project, that may not be necessary.

Atty. General Dana Nessel
Dana Nessel at a Feb. 21, 2019 press conference in Lansing | Michael Gerstein

Enbridge issued a statement after Nessel’s opinion last week, saying that Enbridge officials “intend to seek clarification from the administration on a path forward.” An Enbridge spokesman declined to comment on the governor’s recent remarks.

Currently, Whitmer has halted all further action on the project through an executive directive that orders state agencies to deny the permits that would move the process forward, citing the attorney general’s opinion that the law creating a Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority, Public Act 359 of 2018, is unconstitutional.

Republican Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) said on Frank Beckmann’s show on WJR-AM on Monday that the tunnel’s fate could “unfortunately … be determined in court.”

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Michael Gerstein
Michael Gerstein

Michael Gerstein is a former Advance reporter covering the Governor's office, criminal justice and the environment.