DETROIT — Enbridge Energy is forging ahead with preparations to build a tunnel in the Straits of Mackinac to protect its controversial Line 5 oil and gas pipeline, even as the state seeks to block the project.
Meeting with reporters at the Detroit Wayne County Port Authority along the Detroit River on Wednesday, Enbridge officials outlined $40 million in engineering and geological preparations planned this year as part of a $500 million project to swap the dual pipelines and construct a tunnel around new pipe. Officials of the Calgary-based energy giant said that’s the best option for protecting the Great Lakes from an unlikely rupture without disrupting regional fuel supplies.
The highlight of Enbridge’s presentation on Wednesday: a tour of the Highland Eagle, a drilling vessel brought from the Irish Sea for the project. The ship was scheduled to depart Detroit on Wednesday night for a 36-hour voyage to the deepest stretches of the Straits, which separate Michigan’s two peninsulas.
Once in the Straits, rotating 38-member crews will drill holes deep into the bedrock and collect rock samples over a 72-day stretch. Meanwhile, a separate jack-up barge will drill six more boreholes – deep, narrow holes – along the lakebed nearer to shore.
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Geological sampling is a critical step for finalizing designs and determining how to best build the 4-mile, 12-foot in diameter tunnel, Enbridge officials said.
Guy Jarvis, Enbridge’s executive vice president of liquids pipelines, called the vessel “tangible evidence” of the company’s commitment to move forward on the tunnel “in the face of the state’s attempts to invalidate prior agreements and shut down the pipeline.”
These boxes will hold rock core samples drilled deep into the lakebed of the Straits of Mackinac (Bridge photos by Jim Malewitz)
The preparations are the latest salvo in an ongoing battle between Enbridge and environmentalists and Democrats over the 66-year-old pipeline that carries up to 540,000 barrels of oil and gas liquids per day from Superior, Wisconsin to Sarnia, Ontario. Dogged by safety concerns, the pipeline was dented by an anchor last year, but hasn’t leaked in the Straits.
Two weeks ago, Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, filed a lawsuit to shut down Line 5 in the Straits. Her suit in Ingham County Circuit Court called the pipelines “a continuing threat of grave harm to critical public rights in the Great Lakes.”
Republicans criticized the suit, calling the tunnel proposal the safest alternative to protecting the pipeline without cutting off propane supplies that are vital to the Upper Peninsula.
In March, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a fellow Democrat, ordered state agencies to stop work on the tunnel project, which her Republican predecessor, Rick Snyder, greenlighted in his final days in office last year. In June, Enbridge sued in Michigan’s Court of Claims seeking to uphold its agreement with Snyder.
The litigation could take years to resolve, but Enbridge vows to be ready should its arguments prevail. The company obtained the state and federal permits for the geological work before its feud with the state escalated recently over tunnel plans.
Enbridge officials said the company could finish the tunnel by 2024 — with only two years to mine the tunnel itself.
Amber Pastoor, who manages the Line 5 replacement and tunnel project for Enbridge, speaks to reporters outside of the Highland Eagle in Detroit.
First, however, crews must understand what lies beneath the Straits.
“That’s why the Highland Eagle is here,” said Amber Pastoor, who manages the Line 5 replacement and tunnel project for Enbridge.
“What is the material? What does the rock and soil of the Straits look like, so we can best design the tunnel?”
Bryan Newland, chairman of the Bay Mills Indian Community in the eastern Upper Peninsula, said he is skeptical of Enbridge’s campaign to tout its tunnel preparations.
He is among the tribal officials who have panned the tunnel plans, saying Native Americans had little voice in negotiations over the pipeline, even though the tunnel would have huge implications for their fishing rights in the Great Lakes.
Nineteenth-century treaties give Michigan tribes exclusive rights to fish in the Straits.
“If the state does not authorize a tunnel, Enbridge will say we’ve already invested tens of millions of dollars,” Newland told Bridge Magazine. “This is a classic tactic … I hope the state doesn’t fall for it and put itself in a corner.”
Enbridge’s drilling is the first project of its kind in the Straits.
The drill sitting atop the Highland Eagle will bore 18 holes into the Straits lakebed, so crews can collect core samples. Each borehole will take four days.
Crews sampled the Straits during construction of the Mackinac Bridge, which connects Mackinaw City and St. Ignace and opened in 1957. Those samples were limited and done without the high-tech tools that Enbridge is deploying.
The samples could reveal other information that will make geologists salivate, Pastoor said. Preliminary work from a near-shore barge revealed a fossilized worm thought to be 400 million years old, Pastoor said.
“There are a lot of geoscientists who are pretty geeked out by what we might find,” she said. “When this geotechnical program is done, we’re going to have the story of the history of the Straits. We’re going to be able to go as far back as 400 million years and understand how the Straits came to be and how Lake Michigan came to be.”