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Environmentalists appeal Michigan regulators’ approval of pipeline tunnel project



FILE - Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac in 2018. (Enbridge)

Environmentalists are challenging Michigan regulators’ decision to approve encasing part of an aging Enbridge Energy oil pipeline that runs beneath a channel connecting two Great Lakes, arguing that they failed to properly consider alternatives that would minimize climate impacts.

The Environmental Law & Policy Center and the Michigan Climate Action Network filed a brief with a state appellate court last week. They argue in the filing that since the state Public Service Commission determined construction would produce greenhouse gases the panel should have forced Enbridge to prove there were no alternatives to the project.

The groups also contend the commission failed to adopt any methodology to measure how the gases could impact climate change and didn’t consider what could happen if the pipeline was shut down.

Enbridge spokesperson Ryan Duffy said in an email that the commission carefully examined all aspects of the tunnel project. He questioned why the groups would want to overturn that decision. Even if they prevail, the line will continue to operate in the straits, Duffy said.

Enbridge wants to build a protective tunnel around a 4-mile portion of its Line 5 pipeline that runs along the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac, which link Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

Enbridge has been operating the pipeline since 1953. It moves up to 23 million gallons of crude oil and natural gas liquids daily between Superior, Wisconsin, and Sarnia, Ontario.

Concerns about a potentially catastrophic spill in the straits has been building since 2017, when Enbridge officials revealed engineers had known about gaps in the pipeline’s protective coating in the straits since 2014. Those fears only grew after a boat anchor damaged the line in 2018.

Enbridge officials maintain the line is structurally sound, but they still reached an agreement with Republican then-Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration in 2018 that calls for the company to build the protective tunnel at a cost of $500 million.

Current Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, opposes the continued operation of the line under the straits even if it is encased in a tunnel, siding with conservation groups, Indigenous tribes and tourism businesses that feel the line is vulnerable.

Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel filed a lawsuit in 2019 seeking to void the easement that allows the line to run beneath the straits. That case is still pending. Whitmer ordered Enbridge in 2020 to shut down the pipeline, but the company ignored the shutdown deadline.

The state Public Service Commission approved the tunnel project in December. Enbridge needs only a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to move forward.

Meanwhile in Wisconsin, a federal judge in Madison last year gave Enbridge three years to shut down part of Line 5 that runs across the reservation of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

The tribe sued Enbridge in 2019 to force the company to remove about 12 miles (19 kilometers) of pipeline crossing its reservation, saying the pipeline is prone to spills and that land agreements allowing it to operate on reservation land expired in 2013.

The company has proposed a 41-mile (66-kilometer) reroute of the pipeline to end its dispute with the tribe. It has appealed the shutdown order to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; the case is still pending.

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