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Michigan Republicans push to start Line 5 tunnel project

A pipeline marker for Line 5 stands in front of the northern side of the Straits of Mackinac. In the background, the Mackinac Bridge is obscured by clouds.
Teresa Homsi / WCMU
A pipeline marker for Line 5 stands in front of the northern side of the Straits of Mackinac. In the background, the Mackinac Bridge is obscured by clouds.

Republicans in the Michigan Senate are sending a letter to federal and state officials urging the start of a pipeline tunnel project under the Straits of Mackinac.

The proposed Great Lakes Tunnel project would house the Line 5 oil and gas pipeline that currently runs exposed along the lakebed.

Despite reaching an agreement in 2018 with the state, the tunnel has faced years of permitting delays from regulators and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Earlier this year, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it would need until 2026 to complete an environmental review for the Great Lakes Tunnel.

State Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Waucedah Twp) calls the delays “foolish.” During a press conference Wednesday morning, McBroom noted rural areas like the Upper Peninsula depend on propane carried through the pipeline.

“Discussion around energy is vibrant right now in Lansing. But the tunnel and the pipeline are being left out of that discussion," McBroom said. "This letter is a reminder to everyone who wants to talk about energy reliability, that this issue is already on the floor. We’ve already voted for this. It should be moving forward.

The pipeline itself is owned by the Canadian-based company Enbridge Energy.

While Enbridge awaits approval for the tunnel project, it’s separately applying for a permit to replace part of its pipeline with the Michigan Public Service Commission.

The last action in that case happened in May, when the latest round of briefs was due.

“As far as we know, there’s no reason to delay. The information that [the Public Service Commission] requested was already turned into them. And they’ve had several meetings subsequently without putting the issue on the agenda,” McBroom said.

Enbridge estimates around 22.68 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids flow through the Line 5 pipeline daily.

According to the state, the raw materials go to natural gas refineries in the U.P., and oil refineries in Detroit, Toledo, Ohio and Sarnia, Canada.

The state says some Michigan-based companies also use Line 5 as a means of transporting their own oil.

Republican lawmakers claim energy prices would rise in rural areas if the pipeline were to shut down, requiring a drastic increase in trucking to make up for the missing supply.

Enviromental groups beg to differ.

Sean McBrearty, the state's director for the Clean Water Action advocacy group, maintains that much of Line 5's fuel does not go to Michigan households.

“That oil... goes from Superior, Wisconsin, where Line 5 starts, to Sarnia, Ontario, where Line 5 ends," McBrearty said. "Michigan is being used as a pass-thru for Canadian oil. We do not benefit."

Clean Water Action makes the case that there are other pipelines and energy sources that can serve the U.P. without risking an oil spill in the Great Lakes.

“A lot of the local distributors in the Upper Peninsula, who are the people who actually sell Upper Peninsula residents' propane, it’s not Enbridge, have started transitioning away from the pipeline years ago,” McBrearty said.

Groups like Clean Water Action have been calling for the total shut down of Line 5 for years. Meanwhile, the state Attorney General’s office has fought the tunnel agreement in court, losing one battle before starting a separate lawsuit that remains ongoing.

During Wednesday’s press conference, Republican senators pointed to a treaty between the U.S. and Canada preventing the shutdown of the pipeline.

“If you don’t do the tunnel, they keep what they’re doing now with the pipeline. Now, I know people will fight this. And they’re trying to stop Line 5 in Wisconsin and other places. But that’s not really on the table right now," state Sen. John Damoose (R-Harbor Springs) said. "I don’t understand why we don’t all agree. Let’s get out of the way and build the tunnel."

Despite reassurances from Line 5 supporters that the pipeline is safe, McBrearty still questions the pipeline's structural integrity. He points to a 2018 incident, where an anchor strike caused three dents to the 70-year-old line.

While some consider the tunnel a safer alternative to the current exposed pipeline,
Clean Water Action believes the best option is to shut down Line 5 entirely.

“If this doesn’t get shut down because the government decides to act and shut it down, this is going to get shut down when it ruptures into the Great Lakes," McBrearty said. "I’d hate to see that day.”

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