Judge: Agency will evaluate Line 5 tunnel plan, but not environmental impacts

By: - October 26, 2020 12:28 pm

Mackinac Bridge | Susan J. Demas

Despite Canadian oil company Enbridge’s argument against it, a small Michigan regulatory panel will be one of three entities charged with granting or denying its plans for a $500 million tunnel-encased oil pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac.

But in a simultaneous win for Enbridge, Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) administrative law judge Dennis Mack also ruled Friday that the commission’s decision-making process on the application should not consider factors like the environmental impacts of the tunnel, the public need for and safety of Line 5 and whether Line 5 has an adverse impact on climate change.

The Canadian oil company first filed an application in April requesting approval from the MPSC on its tunnel project, while alternatively arguing that it does not need the MPSC’s approval. Enbridge claimed that its original 1953 easement with the state gave it all the authority it needed to relocate the dual pipelines into a single, tunnel-encased pipeline under the lakebed.

A series of public hearings followed, with the panel ultimately deciding to reject Enbridge’s argument that it did not need to undergo a full regulatory process for the new pipeline. The commission then embarked on the proceedings for a contested case hearing, including a public hearing in August.


Many public comments submitted to the MPSC in opposition to the tunnel project have been related to Line 5’s impact on the environment and climate change, and the risks of both having an aging oil pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac and building a more permanent new one.

The “Great Lakes Tunnel Project” to replace the 67-year-old Line 5 involves a new easement and new 99-year lease of public trust property.

On Friday, Mack ruled that Enbridge must indeed undergo the full regulatory process, but the scope of the case will be strictly limited to the tunnel project itself and not the general pros and cons of having oil pipelines in the Great Lakes, which means that Line 5’s impacts on climate change and environmental degradation will not be considered in the MPSC’s decision.

Mack’s ruling from Friday reads, in part: “… The conduct at issue in this case does not include the environmental effects from the extraction, refinement, or consumption of the oil transported on Line 5. Therefore, any evidence in that regard, including the environmental effect of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, is irrelevant.”

Approval for the project will be up to the MPSC, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.


“Keeping oil pipelines in the Great Lakes for one more day, let alone 99 more years, isn’t in Michigan’s interest,” said David Holtz, spokesperson for the anti-Line 5 Oil & Water Don’t Mix coalition.

“So it’s good that the MPSC didn’t give Enbridge a pass on reviewing their proposed oil tunnel on the basis of safety and whether it’s in the public interest. But overlooking direct Line 5 climate impacts from 23 million gallons of oil a day is short-sighted and disappointing,” Holtz told the Advance Monday.

The MPSC’s schedule indicates that a series of hearings for cross-examination in the case will begin in May 2021, meaning that the commission may not make a decision regarding the application until late spring or mid-summer.

“We greatly appreciate the judge’s decision to limit the scope of the case to the relocation of the replacement pipeline within the Great Lakes Tunnel,” Enbridge spokesperson Ryan Duffy said in a statement Friday.

“… We look forward to working with the Michigan Public Service Commission as the PSC gives ample opportunity for all Michiganders to be heard – while preventing the process from being misused to promote issues unrelated to the project.”

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).