Enviros urge Whitmer to halt oil tunnel plan, as GOP lauds talks

By: - April 17, 2019 2:19 pm

Mackinac Bridge | Susan J. Demas

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has been in talks with Enbridge officials and is still not ruling out the Canadian energy company’s plan to bury a new oil pipeline beneath Mackinac Straits bedrock, the Detroit News reported.

In response, environmentalist lobbying groups in Michigan are steering clear of criticizing the Democratic governor over the issue, but argue that the tunnel project could put the Great Lakes at risk of an oil spill. They are calling on Whitmer to stop the project and explore other options.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, April 16, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

The Michigan Advance reported almost two weeks ago that Whitmer hasn’t ruled out supporting Enbridge’s plan to bury a new oil pipeline 100 feet beneath the lake floor to replace the existing 66-year-old Line 5. It carries roughly 23 million gallons of oil and a small amount of natural gas liquids through the Straits of Mackinac each day.

The seven-to-10-year timeframe former Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration had estimated for construction of the new buried pipeline is “too long,” Whitmer told the Detroit News editorial board on Monday.

“If we can’t hammer out a solution that gets the pipeline out of the water by a date certain that is quicker than what I think the Snyder administration tried to negotiate, then, you know, we’re going to have to look at all the alternatives,” she told the News.

State House Republicans are praising Whitmer, while calling the move “an about-face” in a press release issued Wednesday.

Triston Cole
Triston Cole

“It seems the governor knows good policy when she sees it but has been too busy placating her political base to do the right thing — until now,” Majority Floor Leader Rep. Triston Cole (R-Mancelona) said in a statement. “By stopping Line 5 reconstruction in the first place, the governor created a false crisis, which wasted valuable time and money spent planning for the project and delayed crucial energy rate relief for northern Michigan families.”

Republicans worked with the Snyder administration to secure the pipeline tunnel deal with Enbridge, passing legislation in the Lame Duck session last year that Snyder signed into law. That created a new political panel, the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority, to oversee the project. The plan also boxed Whitmer out of involvement.

At Whitmer’s request, Attorney General Dana Nessel reviewed that law and she later found it to be unconstitutional, as the Advance previously reported.

After Nessel’s office released the legal opinion, Whitmer issued an executive directive halting state agencies from issuing any new permits to Enbridge that would further the pipeline tunnel project — effectively halting it.

While House Republicans are lauding the news, environmentalists are calling on Whitmer to oppose the project.

Liz Kirkwood, executive director of an environmental group called For Love of Water (FLOW), told the Advance that it seems as though Whitmer’s administration is “trying to examine all of its options.”

Liz Kirkwood

But Kirkwood questioned whether any pipeline is needed in the Great Lakes, buried or not.

“Most likely it will become a stranded asset,” Kirkwood said. “The world is going to change in the next 100 years, guaranteed. Our energy needs are transforming and … this is an incredible opportunity to take a leap forward and plan for our energy future.

“We shouldn’t be searching for another infrastructure project,” she continued. “We’ve got all we need.”

Other environmentalists had similar comments.

“A tunnel to carry Enbridge’s Canadian oil is not a solution that is good for Michigan and Enbridge cannot be trusted to honor its agreements or the law,” said Sean McBrearty in a statement. He’s a spokesman for Oil & Water Don’t Mix, a coalition of Michigan environmental groups.

“A tunnel would prolong the risk of an oil spill along 400 inland waters and Lake Michigan shoreline, along which Line 5 runs in Michigan,” McBrearty continued, adding that the coalition is “counting on” Whitmer to pursue other options “that would better protect Michigan’s waters and climate.”

Enbridge's Line 5.
National Wildlife Federation

The group also said it intends to work with the Whitmer administration “as it moves toward decommissioning Line 5,” although the governor has avoided a firm answer about whether she still intends to follow through on a campaign promise to do so.

When asked by reporters almost two weeks ago 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,” and did not rule out the tunnel plan as one way of achieving that.

“Allowing oil to flow through the heart of our Great Lakes in any form is dangerous and unacceptable,” Lisa Wozniak, executive director at the Michigan League of Conservation Voters said in a statement. “The people of Michigan should not have to bear the massive risks just for a convenient pass-through for Canadian oil. We urge the governor to pursue alternative options to the tunnel, as she has conversations with the oil company responsible for spilling over 1 million gallons of oil since 1968.”

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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.