Enbridge offers new 2024 deadline for Great Lakes oil tunnel

By: - May 30, 2019 4:43 pm

Mackinac Bridge | Susan J. Demas

After weeks of negotiations between Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration and the Canadian oil company Enbridge, the latter has announced that it can complete construction on a planned buried oil pipeline within just five years.

Enbridge originally estimated a seven-to-10-year construction period for its proposed $500 million oil pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac that would replace the existing 66-year-old Line 5.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at the Mackinac Policy Conference, May 29, 2019 | Andrew Roth

But discussions with Whitmer’s office and private “additional commitments” from Enbridge have shaved years off the projected timeline leading to an estimated completion date of 2024, Enbridge said in a statement Thursday.

The company still plans to retire Line 5 in favor of a new pipeline that would be encased in a tunnel 100 feet beneath the Straits of Mackinac.

“As previously committed, operation of the current Line 5 would cease immediately following the placement into service of the replacement pipeline in the tunnel,” the company’s statement said. “Enbridge has also committed to provide additional safety measures surrounding its operation during that interim period while the tunnel is being permitted and constructed.”

Whitmer said previously that the timeline promised by Enbridge under GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration was too slow.

While the Democratic governor did not immediately signal whether the quickened pace is enough to win her support, she said talks are ongoing. Whitmer also expressed concern over the prospect of prolonged litigation.

The faster construction timeline “tells me that perhaps we can make it even better, and we’re working on it,” Whitmer told reporters at the Mackinac Policy Conference Thursday.

“I think that, you know, I am concerned that if we don’t have a date certain on when that pipeline gets out of the water, that the attorney general’s gonna wanna go to court,” Whitmer continued. “And I think going to court creates a lot of uncertainty. We can be locked in litigation for a long time. And meanwhile the pipeline stays in the water and that’s what I’m worried about.”

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel told the Michigan Advance Wednesday that if Whitmer and Enbridge don’t reach a deal soon, she will begin legal proceedings to shut down the existing Line 5 “sometime in the month of June.”

“I won’t be satisfied until I see something that I know can be enforced in a court of law, that absolutely, 100 percent, will create a situation where Line 5 has to be decommissioned,” she told the Advance.

Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown wrote in an email Wednesday that the governor supports that plan. Brown clarified Thursday that the governor supports a June deadline for an agreement with Enbridge —  but not necessarily a drawn-out lawsuit.

“The governor and AG share the same goal of wanting to get the oil out of the water sooner rather than later,” Brown said. “Everyone involved understands decisions need to be made soon and no later than sometime in June. Ongoing discussions will determine next steps, whatever they may be.”

Whitmer wins Michigan Chamber kudos for Line 5 talks

Michigan Chamber of Commerce CEO Rich Studley previously told the Advance that he was concerned about the same legal prospect, for which he criticized Nessel.

“Her most recent comments suggest that if the AG had her way, she would plunge the state, at taxpayer expense, into years and years and years of very expensive, uncertain litigation that frankly the experts in this area that we speak to believe that [sic] state government would probably lose,” Studley said during a May phone interview.

If the governor comes on board, Enbridge said it could begin construction start as soon as 2021. The company said “it is awaiting the state’s decision on supporting that path forward.”

A spokeswoman for the attorney general did not immediately return an email from the Advance.

Nessel: I ran on shutting down Line 5 and I’ll do it without a deal by June

On Thursday, the Anishinaabek Caucus of the Michigan Democratic Party issued a strong statement against Line 5 “in accordance with the Tribal Treaties recognized under the United States Constitution and in solidarity with the position of the Twelve Tribes of Michigan as stewards of the land and water.”

The caucus said it “enjoins the Governor and the State of Michigan to shut down Line 5 immediately to eliminate catastrophic risks to water and land, and to abandon plans for a tunnel which would perpetuate existing risks to our resources. Furthermore, the Michigan Anishinaabek Caucus stance is to immediately REVERSE the damage to our ecosystems and climate from burning fossil fuels, not to create opportunities to expand their use.”

Advance reporter Nick Manes contributed to this story.

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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.