Michigan Officials Approve Permits for Great Lakes Pipeline Tunnel

In the face of a lawsuit filed by the governor to shut down operations, defiant energy company Enbridge is planning to build a tunnel around its twin underwater pipelines so they can be replaced instead.  

The Mackinac Bridge spanning the Straits of Mackinac from Mackinaw City, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

DETROIT (CN) — Michigan’s environmental agency said Friday it approved construction permits for a tunnel that would allow energy company Enbridge to replace and improve dual underwater pipelines in the northern part of the state that are vulnerable to passing ships.

Democrat Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s office said in a statement that the permits issued by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy did not change her belief that a shutdown this spring is necessary due to safety concerns.

“The existing dual pipelines through the Straits of Mackinac present an unacceptable risk to the Great Lakes and threaten over 350,000 jobs in Michigan that rely on Michigan’s pristine natural resources.  The Governor and DNR determined that Enbridge must cease operation of the dual pipelines by mid-May of 2021,” it said. “Today’s decision by EGLE to issue permits related to tunnel construction, consistent with law, in no way lessens the pressing need for a shutdown of the existing pipelines by mid-May and Enbridge’s legal obligation to comply with that deadline.”

The EGLE stressed the tunnel permit approval did not mean the pipeline replacement project was moving forward and that its authorization is under the jurisdiction of the Michigan Public Service Commission, which has a docket open on the topic.

The agency also said it consulted the State Historic Preservation Office, which provided guidelines to protect “cultural resources” as construction begins. Enbridge is also required to obtain approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under the terms of the Clean Water Act.

“EGLE is obligated to review permit applications with the goal of protecting the environment and public health, but within the confines of Michigan law,” said Teresa Seidel, director of EGLE’s Water Resources Division. “During our review of this proposed project, our top priority has been protecting the Straits of Mackinac and the surrounding wetlands, aquatic life, and other natural and cultural resources from adverse environmental impacts.”

The permits require Enbridge to develop and submit plans for a wastewater treatment system with operational and construction procedures that promote water flow and ensure discharged water is less than 85 degrees Fahrenheit to protect underwater life. The construction must also avoid any damage to neighboring historic sites.

Professor Eric Smith, associate director of the Tulane Energy Institute at Tulane University, believes Enbridge can pull it off.

“There are numerous pipelines that have been drilled under waterways, including several under the Mississippi River, here in Louisiana. There is even a short fabricated tunnel line carrying cryogenic LNG [liquified natural gas] between an offshore loading facility and a shore terminal that supports LNG export in Chesapeake Bay, near Baltimore,” he wrote in an email. “So, if the question is about underwater tunnels and the dangers of maritime traffic, the answer is that they can be designed to operate safely for a number of years.”

Smith also thinks Enbridge knows what it is doing.

“I would say they are one of the more experienced pipeline operators in North America,” he said. “I would suggest they are also trying to be responsible by replacing the aging line with a better replacement.”

The 68-year-old dual pipelines located in the Straits of Mackinac were the subject of Whitmer’s ire when she and the Department of Natural Resources sued Enbridge last November, citing a lack of compliance with safety standards.

The lawsuit filed in Ingham County Circuit Court sought a declaratory judgment that an easement for the pipelines was properly terminated and requested an injunction to stop Enbridge from further operating the twin pipelines.

“After spending more than 15 months reviewing Enbridge’s record over the last 67 years, it is abundantly clear that today’s action is necessary. Enbridge’s historic failures and current non-compliance present too great a risk to our Great Lakes and the people who depend upon them,” DNR Director Dan Eichinger said in a statement at the time.

Whitmer accused Enbridge of refusing to “take action to protect our Great Lakes and the millions of Americans who depend on them for clean drinking water and good jobs.”

But earlier this month, the energy company said it intended to ignore the demands to shut down and maintained the equipment poses no danger to the public.  

Enbridge Executive Vice President Vern Yu sent a letter to state officials saying there is no reason to cease operations.

“We believe that it would be in the best interest of the state to find an agreement that would achieve the state’s long-term goals rather than pursue litigation that ultimately is unlikely to succeed,” he wrote.

He added, “In the meantime, the dual pipelines will continue to operate safely until they are replaced on completion of the tunnel project, as per the 2018 agreements.”

Enbridge tried to assuage public concern previously by striking a deal with Whitmer’s predecessor, Republican Rick Snyder, in 2018 to run a new pipe through a tunnel to be drilled beneath the straits connecting Lake Huron and Lake Michigan.

Whitmer was not deterred by that agreement and pushed forward with the lawsuit.

“They have repeatedly violated the terms of the 1953 easement by ignoring structural problems that put our Great Lakes and our families at risk,” the governor said in November. “Most importantly, Enbridge has imposed on the people of Michigan an unacceptable risk of a catastrophic oil spill in the Great Lakes that could devastate our economy and way of life.”

Yu disputed those assertions in his letter, saying the state’s attempt to terminate the easement did not consider that past issues were corrected and officials did not show any current violations existed.

“The notice ignores scientific evidence, and is based on inaccurate and outdated information,” he wrote.

Smith believes that any effort to remove the pipelines completely would cause a backlash.

“The Governor’s office is beset by claims originating with people who are seeking any reason to object to this pipeline, even after the successful operation, for 68 years, of the original line,” the professor said. “They also seem to be immune to the fact that continuing to operate with the original line is considered dangerous by both sides in this argument.”

He added, “This suggests to me that the environmentalists are hoping to get rid of both the older line and its replacement which they would view as a victory. I do not feel the Canadians and particularly the customers of Enbridge on the Canadian side of the border would agree with them.”

The Great Lakes region supplies drinking water for 5 million Michiganders and 48 million people overall. It holds 21% of the world’s fresh surface water. Whitmer said an oil spill accident could potentially affect up to 350,000 jobs in the Wolverine State.

Enbridge has struggled to maintain a safe environment for the pipelines in recent years. In April 2018, the lines were struck and dented in three different locations when an anchor was accidently dropped and dragged by a commercial vessel. In June of last year, Enbridge announced they were damaged again by anchors or cables deployed by nearby vessels that chipped away at pipeline coatings. Four of the five vessels potentially responsible for the impacts were operated by Enbridge’s own contractors. 

In June 2019, Whitmer directed the Department of Natural Resources to undertake a review of Enbridge’s compliance with the 1953 easement. The completion of that review triggered the notice and lawsuit.

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