by Bruce Walker
The Michigan Public Service Commission on Thursday ordered the record reopened in Enbridge Energy LP’s application to relocate Line 5 into a tunnel buried beneath the Straits of Mackinac.
The MPSC noted the record as it currently stands lacks critical engineering and safety data.
Enbridge is seeking permits to relocate its 69-year-old dual pipeline situated over approximately five miles along the floor of Lake Michigan into a tunnel buried 100-feet beneath the lakebed. The project was greenlit during the waning months of former Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration, but both the tunnel project and original pipeline have been in the crosshairs of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel.
“We remain committed to the MPSC process and seeing that the Great Lakes Tunnel is built,” Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy told The Center Square in an emailed statement. “It will make a safe pipeline safer, assure long term energy security and reliability, and support Michigan jobs and the economy. Compared to the alternatives of truck, rail, or lake-going barges, pipelines are the safest and most efficient mode of transport for moving fuel. Placing the pipeline in the Great Lakes Tunnel better protects the Great Lakes.”
Citing environmental concerns, the governor and AG are attempting to shut down the 645-mile pipeline, which transports 540,000 gallons of hydrocarbons daily across the Upper Peninsula, across the Straits of Mackinac, and onward to refineries in Michigan, Canada and Ohio. Likewise, Whitmer and Nessel are attempting to block construction of the proposed $500 million Line 5 tunnel, which would be paid for by Enbridge.
Whitmer and Nessel are seeking to move jurisdiction for their case to a Michigan court because of the 70-year-old easement between Michigan and Enbridge. For its part, Canadian company Enbridge argues the case belongs in U.S. federal court due to a 1977 U.S./Canada treaty and the pipeline is regulated by a U.S. federal agency. The court’s decision is still pending.
“The MPSC decision today to continue Enbridge’s application review process has no impact on the existing pipelines across the Straits. Line 5 continues to operate safely in accordance with all federal safety standards administered by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Commission,” Duffy said. “The ongoing operation of Line 5 also remains protected by the Transit Pipelines Treaty, which was entered by the U.S. and Canadian Governments.”
MPSC Chair Dan Scripps told The Center Square there has been a significant amount of evidence presented to date, but the Commission asserts there are still some important issues relating to the engineering and safety of the tunnel project “as well as the safety of the current dual pipelines, where the record remains incomplete.” Scripps continued: “Today’s decision provides an opportunity for all parties – including Enbridge and others who support the project, as well as those who are opposed – to submit the additional evidence needed for the Commission to fulfill our responsibilities in reviewing the application in accordance with Michigan law.”
Line 5 transports light crude oil and natural gas liquids, including propane used for home heating in Michigan. Although the pipeline has been in operation without any significant incidents for seven decades, Enbridge says relocating Line 5 into a tunnel would be much more environmentally safe.
“From the beginning, this case has attracted a lot of attention, and it is important that we get it right,” Scripps said. “I am confident that the final decision by the Commission in this case will not be the last regulatory decision regarding the proposed pipeline relocation project, and today’s decision to seek additional evidence will not impact the timing of the project, should it go forward.”
The MPSC’s actions on Thursday did not come with a timetable. Scheduling for the filing of testimony, presentation of exhibits and rebuttals, and opportunity for cross-examination before an administrative law judge was deferred.
“Enbridge will continue to work with the Michigan Public Service Commission to address any remaining questions that Commissioners may have regarding the relocation of the Line 5 pipelines across the Straits of Mackinac into the Great Lakes Tunnel,” Duffy said. “We believe that extensive information documenting the engineering and safety of the Great Lakes Tunnel is already included in the MPSC record and led to the MPSC professional staff recommended approval of our application based on the thorough record that has been developed to date.”
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Bruce Walker is a regional editor at The Center Square. He previously worked as editor at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s MichiganScience magazine and The Heartland Institute’s InfoTech & Telecom News.
Photo “Replacement Project” by Enbridge.