Enbridge announces lawsuit, Nessel responds: ‘We’ll see you in court’

By: - June 6, 2019 5:34 pm

Mackinac Bridge | Susan J. Demas

Canadian oil company Enbridge announced Thursday that it will sue the state of Michigan in an effort to protect its development of a planned pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac.

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

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer spokesperson Tiffany Brown said in a statement that Enbridge “walked away from the negotiating table” by doing so, and that the governor remains committed to “getting Line 5 out of the water as quickly as possible.

It is now abundantly clear that Enbridge — which is responsible for the largest inland oil spill in American history in Marshall, Michigan — is only interested in protecting its bottom line,” Brown wrote.

“Yesterday’s report from the [National Transportation Safety Board] only highlights the fact that the dual pipelines running through the Straits of Mackinac are a sitting duck, and there is nothing Enbridge can do to prevent the risk of a 12,000-lb. anchor strike from rupturing the pipelines.”

Whitmer wins Michigan Chamber kudos for Line 5 talks

Whitmer, a Democrat who promised during her campaign to shut down the pipeline known as Line 5, slowed the project’s momentum by withholding permits after Attorney General Dana Nessel issued a legal opinion saying the 2018 Lame Duck law that helped secure the deal was unconstitutional.

That law created the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority (MSCA), a now-defunct board charged with overseeing the pipeline’s development. It dissolved shortly after Nessel’s opinion was released, but Enbridge said Thursday it will file legal action in the Michigan Court of Claims to restore the original agreement.

Enbridge Mackinaw Station, Mackinaw City | Susan J. Demas

The law boxed Whitmer out of negotiations with Enbridge over the proposed $500 million utility tunnel by granting its oversight to the MCSA.

Earlier this week, Whitmer said in a letter to Enbridge CEO Al Monaco that she hoped for a “conceptual agreement” over the pipeline’s development by Monday.

Whitmer said she was optimistic about a deal between her office and the company, rather than protracted, potentially expensive litigation at the expense of taxpayers.

That now seems unlikely.

“We are taking this action in order to protect Michigan consumers,” said Guy Jarvis, Enbridge’s executive vice president of liquids pipelines. “We require a court review of the enforceability in order to remove obstacles to building the tunnel as quickly as possible and ensure energy security and environmental protection for Michigan.”

Attorney General Dana Nessel | Susan J. Demas

Nessel responded in a statement shortly after that she is “pleased to know that Enbridge shares the Attorney General’s interest in securing an expedited resolution to this matter.”

She added: “We look forward to seeing them in Court.”

Oil and Water Don’t Mix is a coalition opposed to any oil pipeline in the Great Lakes. Spokesman David Holtz said Thursday that Enbridge’s plans to sue the state “come as no surprise,” calling the Lame Duck law “an end run around Michigan’s constitution and environmental laws.

“Now it wants to bypass those same legal and environmental protections for Michigan by asking a court to ignore the rule of law,” Holtz added. “We look forward to Michigan’s Attorney General defending Michigan’s laws against Enbridge’s tactics and urge Governor Whitmer to not be diverted from quickly moving forward with implementing a process for decommissioning Line 5.”

Sign at a Mackinac Island shop | Susan J. Demas

During the Snyder administration, Enbridge estimated a seven-to-10-year construction timeline for a tunnel 100 feet beneath the Straits of Mackinac lake floor that would enclose a new oil pipeline replacing the existing, 66-year-old Line 5.

Line 5 carries roughly 23 million gallons of oil through the straits each day.

After Whitmer suggested that was not fast enough, the company said it would begin construction in 2021 and finish as early as 2024 — “assuming no further delays in the permitting process.”

Earlier this year, Whitmer directed state agencies to withhold any further permits Enbridge may need until she reached an agreement with the company.

Enbridge said Thursday that it’s still aiming for a 2024 completion date, and that the company plans to shut down Line 5 as soon as the new, buried pipeline becomes operational.

House Speaker Lee Chatfield at the Mackinac Policy Conference, May 30, 2019 | Andrew Roth

The company has said it will reduce the risk of an oil spill to “virtually zero.”

State House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) reiterated his support for the tunnel project in a statement Friday.

“We need these resources, and we need the right plan to secure them,” Chatfield said. “I am glad to see the issue continuing to move forward, and I hope the courts uphold the democratically-enacted law to protect northern Michigan and our entire state.”

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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.