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Michigan to Enbridge: Line 5 tunnel permit application is incomplete

Before Enbridge can seek a permit to build the Line 5 tunnel to transport oil and natural gas beneath the Straits of Mackinac, Michigan regulators say the company needs to spend more time considering alternatives.

That’s one of several conclusions state officials reached when they reviewed Enbridge’s application for a permit from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes & Energy to build the controversial tunnel between Michigan’s two peninsulas. 

In a May 4 letter to the Canadian petroleum conglomerate, a state district supervisor gave Enbridge 30 days to update its application with more information.

Regulators said Enbridge’s application was unnecessarily long, at more than 350 pages, but omitted key information state officials need to help decide whether to grant the permit. 

“EGLE requests that Enbridge edit submitted materials for precision and relevance to actual proposed construction,” wrote Joseph Haas, a supervisor in EGLE’s Gaylord District Office.

In addition to submitting “a complete assessment of the alternatives” to the tunnel project, the letter stated, Enbridge must outline plans to mitigate damage the tunnel project could cause to wetlands and federally-protected plants, offer details about ongoing lawsuits that could affect the tunnel’s fate, and add other missing pieces to the application.

The holdup is the latest twist in a long battle over the fate of the 67-year-old pipeline, which transports 540,000 barrels daily of crude oil and natural gas liquids between Wisconsin and Ontario. Opponents have long called for its shutdown, arguing the pipeline poses a catastrophic hazard to the Great Lakes and inland waterways. 

Under a 2018 agreement Enbridge reached with the administration of Gov. Rick Snyder just before the Republican left office, the company plans to replace the 4-mile section that sits exposed at the bottom of the straits with a new line encapsulated in a concrete-lined tunnel deep beneath the lakebed.

Enbridge contends the tunnel plan would virtually eliminate the possibility of a spill in the Straits, but opponents cite other environmental concerns, including spill risks on inland waterways and the environmental impacts of fossil fuels, in their continued opposition to the tunnel and the larger pipeline. 

Snyder’s successor, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, campaigned on a promise to shut the pipeline, but so far she and Attorney General Dana Nessel, who also opposes the pipeline, have been unsuccessful in that effort.

State regulators on Wednesday said the letter to Enbridge is merely a routine step in the permitting process.

“This type of back-and-forth correspondence is common for the majority of applications we review for completeness,” EGLE spokesman Scott Dean said.

That didn’t stop Line 5 opponents from heralding the letter as an incremental victory in their fight against the tunnel project. 

“The burden is now on Enbridge to prove why Michigan and the Great Lakes should shoulder the huge risk of having Line 5 oil pipelines in the Great Lakes and crossing 400 other waterways,” said Sean McBrearty, coordinator of the anti-Line 5 group Oil & Water Don’t Mix, in a statement. 

“We don’t think that’s a hurdle Enbridge can overcome.”

Enbridge spokesperson Ryan Duffy told Bridge the company plans to provide the information EGLE requested “and move forward with this process.” Pending permit approvals, Duffy said Enbridge officials still expect to begin construction on the $500 million tunnel project next year and bring the new segment online in 2024. 

While it works to revise the EGLE application, Enbridge is also awaiting decisions on several other applications related to Line 5. The Michigan Public Service Commission is gathering public comment on Enbridge’s request that the commission either approve its plan to site the pipeline within the tunnel, or rule that the company already has approval.

Meanwhile, the tunnel project remains mired in legal disputes. Ingham County Circuit Court Judge James Jamo is scheduled to hear arguments May 22 in a lawsuit Nessel filed in June alleging the pipeline’s operation is a nuisance that violates the public trust doctrine and the Michigan Environmental Protection Act. 

Nessel is also appealing a Court of Claims decision that upheld the 2018 law that made way for the tunnel project. Nessel contends that the law, passed by former Gov. Snyder and the Republican-led Legislature, is unconstitutional. Arguments in that case are scheduled for June 2 before a Michigan Court of Appeals panel.

Enbridge also faces separate legal challenges from municipal, tribal and citizens groups.

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