Opinion | Line 5 tunnel is a huge improvement. Construction needs to start yesterday

Anthony England is a former NASA astronaut and current dean of the school of Engineering and Computer Science at University of Michigan-Dearborn. He is a member of Michigan’s Pipeline Safety Advisory Board, which has been evaluating Line 5 in Michigan.

Update: Mackinac Bridge Authority shouldn't oversee Line 5 tunnel, Michigan Republicans say

As a member of Michigan’s Pipeline Safety Advisory Board and an engineer with many years of experience, I have been closely involved in the evaluation of Enbridge Energy’s petroleum pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac. I share the concern articulated at many Advisory Board meetings about the continued operation of Line 5 in the Straits and the general public apprehension that Line 5 has exceeded its design life.  

A recent agreement between the State of Michigan and Enbridge puts the state on the right path for the future – a new Straits pipeline in a secure tunnel, along with other safety improvements elsewhere on the pipeline.  

The agreement calls for the permanent decommissioning and replacement of the Line 5 segment that crosses the Straits. A new 30-inch Line 5 segment would be built and housed in a concrete tunnel that would be encased in bedrock well below the waters of the Great Lakes, contingent on an agreement being reached between the Mackinac Bridge Authority and Enbridge. That is a much safer alternative than the current line, and the state should pursue it.

The state’s agreement requires Enbridge to pay all costs for design, construction, operation and maintenance of the multi-use utility tunnel for at least 99 years. The proposed utility tunnel is the best and, perhaps, only acceptable alternative to the current Line 5 in the Straits. A tunnel would:

  • Avoids risks of damage from dragging anchors
  • Offer other utilities safer, more convenient, and more reliable linkages between Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas
  • Provide a controlled environment for all utilities
  • Allow access for testing and replacement
  • Provide secondary containment in case the pipeline were to fail, reducing to near zero the possibility of an oil leak from this source into the Great Lakes  

Line 5 in the Straits won’t last forever. It is my judgment that there are growing uncertainties about the pipeline’s condition, and we need the tunnel built as quickly as possible.

In the meantime, allowing a continuation of Line 5 operations must include incentives to build the utility tunnel quickly. Such an agreement for continued operations might, for example, require restrictions on pipeline pressures that become increasingly severe with time.  Without such incentives, indecision could easily extend until a Line 5 failure occurs.

Another good thing about the agreement are the requirements for critical safety improvements across the line’s 547-mile span in the state, including immediate improvements at 13 priority water crossings and additional actions at 68 other crossings.

Also critical is the $1.8-plus billion in financial assurance Enbridge must provide to respond to a potential oil spill in the Straits or anywhere on Line 5 in Michigan. I am glad that Michigan will have a new radar system to supply better, real-time wave-height data at the Straits.

Other measures will provide consistent state supervision of Line 5 through regular meetings between Enbridge and the state, and cameras in the Straits, paid for by Enbridge, to support new regulations from the U.S. Coast Guard prohibiting ships in the area from dropping their anchors. An April episode in which a dragging anchor damaged Line 5 along with other utility infrastructure underscores this threat to utility lines on the bottomlands of the Straits of Mackinac.

An independent Risk Analysis completed earlier this year showed the consequences of a worst-case release from the existing Straits pipeline. The cost could approach $2 billion. The damage to cultural and natural resources would be extensive and perhaps irreparable. Placing a new pipeline in a tunnel in bedrock deep beneath the Straits would dramatically reduce these risks and would mark a significant step forward for the long-term protection of the Great Lakes.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission.

If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Monica WilliamsClick here for details and submission guidelines.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Thu, 10/25/2018 - 6:54am

Here's a crazy idea, shutdown Line 5, and don't build any new line or tunnel if you really want a zero risk of destroying our natural resources. Stop pumping millions of years worth of carbon into the atmosphere and we might just survive as a species.

Thu, 10/25/2018 - 12:30pm

Amen. The pipeline supporters dont get the fact that a) ANY oil flowing through our Great Lakes makes the contamination of said lakes possible, trench or no trench, b) the voters DO NOT want to take that risk, c) politicians may value big corporate donors over our environment but the taxpayers do, d) Enbridge can transport their oil like everyone else via trucks.

Voters care about curbing climate change and pollution. I hope our politicians who don't think they do find out differently in a few days.

June Thaden
Thu, 10/25/2018 - 11:01am

Anthony England avoids the basic questions of the value of freshwater, climate change and the viability of burning quantities fossil fuels over the next century. Or the increasing hazards of allowing crude oil flow in the current pipelines in the Straits, even with decreased pressures, etc. during the 7-10 years to plan, permit, and build a tunnel. No Tunnel in or under the waters of the Great Lakes.

Thu, 10/25/2018 - 12:33pm

The author acts as if we don't have a choice. We DO have a choice, and I hope we exercise that right on Nov. 6!

Thu, 10/25/2018 - 12:14pm

It's great when "Progressives " admit their real goal is to constrict all facets of the energy industry (except wind and sun) and forcing the costs for living life as well as taxes to soar to the point where the family vacation is a distant legend. That should work out well.

Thu, 10/25/2018 - 3:05pm

Of course we're for restricting fossil fuel usage. We should have started restricting it back in the 70s under Carter. Between solar, wind, and nuclear, we can meet out energy demands without relying on coal or gas (though we should keep some fast spin up gas turbines around for emergencies). Continuing on current path will lead to catastrophic environmental shifts that will have far more of an economic impact than the burden of ditching coal now

Thu, 10/25/2018 - 5:13pm

Bones, That's not being argued. You may be correct, I'm convinced to some indeterminable extent you are and wouldn't necessarily be opposed to an energy consumption tax. The point is that if it is truthfully stated that the real objective of your side in this is to dramatically raise the cost of fuel so that it won't be used anymore, I doubt it will go too well at the ballot for you. In the interest of fair and true elections, which you are concerned about from your previous comments, this shouldn't be any issue. Or am I wrong?

JIm Olson
Thu, 10/25/2018 - 3:48pm

The problem with this opinion is that it is an engineering analysis about a tunnel, but completely ignores the law. First, the agreement calling for the tunnel is not binding; Enbridge agreed only to negotiate, but doesn't have to agree to a tunnel. Second, the tunnel if it happens at all would not be completed for 7 to 10 years; during that time the already dangerous pipelines in the Straits will continue unabated and with increased risks. Third, the agreement tries to short-cut required legal approvals and permits for the tunnel; that is illegal, because Enbridge and State were required to obtain authorization to locate and occupy the public trust bottomlands of the Great Lakes under the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act. Fourth, the Agreement tries to lock in all of Line 5 for decades to come, even if Enbridge does not agree to the tunnel. Fifth, the Agreement calls for a public board and authority to use the bonding authority, public trust lands under Great Lakes to fund and supervise a tunnel primarily to benefit a private corporation or private purpose contrary to the public trust in Great Lakes, and contrary to the constitutional prohibition of allowing use of public lands and property or money and lending power to private corporations; Sixth, the Agreement puts at danger and risk the Mackinac Bridge, operated by a stand-alone Mackinac Bridge Authority whose sole purpose is to protect the fiscal and infrastructure integrity of the bridge for the general motoring public; the Agreement would have the bridge authority make all the arrangements, transfer public lands and state bonding authority for Enbridge. Seventh, the Agreement for the tunnel, if ever built, exempts Enbridge through using the bridge authority from obtaining any required government approvals, such as public trust, environmental impact and alternative determinations, which cannot be waived under Michigan Constitution and Great Lakes laws passed since the bridge authority was formed in 1952. As you can see, the tunnel cannot be done without telling Enbridge, simply, if you want to build a tunnel, go get your act together, raise the money yourself, and apply and obtain the approvals that every other business and citizen has to do to operate a lawful business or venture. Michigan taxpayers and law don't authorize a private subsidy or corporate socialization for a private company and is stockholders.

Thu, 10/25/2018 - 4:45pm

I'm all for a safer way to transport energy but trucking isn't safer by any means and their already short on drivers. I'm also sure just about everyone who comments here drives a vehicle to work, maybe this country should start walking! That'll never happen so stop your bitching all you tree hugging Subaru driving tree huggers! Nobody likes you guys.

Thu, 10/25/2018 - 5:22pm

It looks brilliant to me! You are in a bind. Do you want to protect the lake as you claim by having a much safer tunnel where oil in the lake isn't a possibility or do you really just want a process to use to end any and all petroleum infrastructure? What is your priority here?

Mon, 10/29/2018 - 3:27pm

Mr. Olson, it seems like you are arguing both that the agreement is not binding, but also that it is TOO binding - that this agreement would somehow bypass the need for required environmental permits and approvals.

I don't for a second believe that both are true.

Unfortunately, this is par for the course for your organization and others, which have simultaneously tried to criticize Enbridge's lack of upkeep or maintenance on the pipeline, while also fighting tooth and nail against its approvals for new underwater anchors and the like.

Likewise, I expect that if you are truly worried about the long time frame to permit and build the tunnel, that you will be an active supporter to help expedite that process, rather than a continued opponent.

You should just give up the disingenuous attacks and admit that you are against any fossil fuel development or transportation.

Thu, 10/25/2018 - 4:42pm

Mr. England is "convinced that the tunnel under the straits is a solution that is overdue." Unfortunately, a catastrophic failure of Line 5 may be overdue, judging by what Mr. England refers to as "growing uncertainties about the pipeline’s condition," and by Enbridge's track record regarding oil pipelines. (The failure in 2010 of Enbridge's Line 6B near Marshall resulted in one of the largest inland oil spills in U. S. history.) Given the stakes, serious consideration should be given to shutting down Line 5 now.

Barbara Stamiris
Thu, 10/25/2018 - 4:55pm

It cost Enbridge $1.3 billion to clean up 40ft of the Kalamazoo River in 2010, yet $1.8 billion is expected to cover 500 miles of Great Lakes' shoreline? Mackinac Bridge Authority is to own the tunnel for 99yrs and lease it to Enbridge for Canadian oil transport. More than 90% of Line 5's oil and propane liquids go directly to Sarnia, despite what Enbridge claims.
Line 5 must last 7 -10 more years while a tunnel is built. And hurry up is the solution?

Hurry the 7year tunnel construction, hoping the 73 year old line lasts and our Great Lakes are spared? What a plan!

Agnosticrat 2.0
Sun, 10/28/2018 - 4:18pm

In a tunnel.. out of a tunnel..
The truth is the majority of Michiganders do not want a pipeline threatening their water period.

Mon, 10/29/2018 - 3:20pm

That's the point - a tunnel goes under the bedrock, not in the water.