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Michigan lawmakers send Line 5 tunnel plan to Gov. Snyder’s desk

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Related: See what Michigan lame-duck bills we're tracking

LANSING — Michigan lawmakers sent a bill to Gov. Rick Snyder on Tuesday that would help him lock-in a plan to build a tunnel around Line 5, the 65-year-old pipeline beneath the Straits of Mackinac that has attracted environmental concerns.

In a 74-34 afternoon vote, the House approved Senate Bill 1197 to create a three-member authority to oversee the proposed tunnel, which is expected to cost Enbridge Energy, the Canadian owner of Line 5, $350 million to $500 million to construct over the coming decade.

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“This pipeline and the energy resources that flow through it are utilized by hundreds of thousands of Michiganders every single day, and we need to protect these energy resources,” Rep. Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, said before the vote.  “We in this chamber, with this plan before us, cannot wait any longer.”

Just minutes later, the Senate — which first approved the bill last week — signed off on minor House amendments in a 25-12 vote. That sent the bill to Snyder.

The frenzy of activity came hours after the House Government Operations Committee advanced the bill to the House floor. The committee heard mostly critical testimony from environmentalists, a former Mackinac Bridge Authority chairman and others who argued Republicans were too frantically pushing the proposal in final days of the legislature’s lame duck session.

Democrats aired those criticisms on the House floor while Republicans shot down several of their proposed amendments. Democrats wanted to require Enbridge to hire mostly Michigan workers for the tunnel project and pay them a prevailing wage, among other proposals.

“This is a very rushed process,” said Rep. Sam Singh, D-East Lansing. “We’ve not had enough time to vet all of these key issues.”

“This foreign company is not going to look after Michigan workers,” he added.

Snyder, a term-limited Republican, wants to swap out the aging twin pipelines running along the bottom of the Straits for a new pipe that would be protected in a bedrock tunnel 100 feet below the lake bottom.

The plan has drawn opposition from environmentalists and many Democrats who want the pipeline shut down rather than replaced, citing fears of a catastrophic oil spill in the Great Lakes, however unlikely.

SB 1197 would create a Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority to oversee the tunnel, which Republicans say Enbridge would construct at its own expense over seven to 10 years. Snyder has separately requested $4.5 million in supplemental funding to be earmarked for the tunnel project.

Snyder would appoint all three members to the authority before Dec. 21 — days before his term ends and he’s succeeded by Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who has vowed to shut down Line 5.

Whitmer’s transition team said in a statement Tuesday it was “reviewing a range of issues surrounding Line 5.”

“Governor-elect Whitmer has made her position on Enbridge Line 5 clear. She believes it poses a serious risk to the Great Lakes, to Michigan's economy, and to our way of life. She is committed to protecting Michigan jobs and Michigan water and opposes actions that would impede her ability to do that,” the statement said.

Authority members would each serve six-year terms under the legislation. And by the end of the month, the new authority would enter into an agreement with Enbridge detailing the specifics of constructing and operating the tunnel and swapping out the aging pipeline.

Because Snyder’s administration was privately negotiating those details, critics suggested lawmakers were approving a risky plan full of unknowns.

“None of us have seen this third agreement or what it’s going to look like. How do you pass something without knowing what the cost’s going to be,” Sean McBrearty, Michigan campaign organizer with the advocacy group Clean Water Action, said at the committee hearing Tuesday.

Enbridge and the state announced an initial deal in October to pursue the tunnel.

Initially, Snyder’s plan hinged on the Mackinac Bridge Authority, an independent state agency that oversees the iconic bridge, owning the 4-mile, 12-foot in diameter tunnel and leasing space to Enbridge for 99 years.

That prompted fierce opposition –  including from former bridge authority members who worried it would distract from oversight of Mackinac Bridge — and Republican lawmakers worked with Snyder to re-write the legislation.  

William Gnodtke, a longtime authority chairman who stepped down late this year, said Tuesday he still wasn’t satisfied with the bill, because of lingering references to Mackinac Bridge Authority oversight, an apparent product of the Legislature’s rush to send Snyder SB 1197.

Under the legislation, the Mackinac Bridge Authority would technically have oversight over the tunnel proposal for a few days under the bill before transferring ownership to the new corridor authority.   

Republican lawmakers say the Mackinac Bridge Authority would face no liability for the tunnel before transferring ownership. The bridge authority remained in the bill as a placeholder only so sponsors could avoid having to start over with fresh legislation.

“The reason why we’re using this vehicle bill is that it was already introduced and it meets the strict legislative timeline,” Keith Creagh, director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, told Bridge in an interview.

“Part of the conversation today continues to focus on the what-ifs, and the administration feels very comfortable with moving ahead on a third agreement — that has measurable milestones and will assure the decommissioning of the pipeline.”

Gnodtke, the former authority chairman, described the legislation to Bridge Magazine as “pure slop” that would benefit Enbridge but prove risky for taxpayers.

“They’re negotiating something, and the legislature’s about ready to give it away (to Enbridge) — that will affect the State of Michigan for a century,” he said.

Line 5 can transport up to 540,000 barrels of light crude oil per day from Superior, Wisconsin under the Straits and across Michigan to Sarnia, Ontario.

Calling for a shutdown, environmental groups have raised a number of arguments about the risks of a spill, and pointed to Enbridge’s safety track record and its history of being scolded by Michigan officials over failing to be transparent about Line 5’s condition.

Enbridge also owns Line 6B, which broke in the Kalamazoo River in 2010, triggering one of the worst inland oil spills in U.S. history. More than 1.2 million gallons of crude oil was recovered during a four-year cleanup and Enbridge has paid nearly $1.3 billion for cleanup and restoration.

Enbridge has touted the Line 5 pipeline as a “vital piece of Michigan energy infrastructure” for meeting Michiganders’ energy needs — including much of the Upper Peninsula’s demand for propane.

Studies funded by environmental groups have cast doubt on the pipeline’s importance for the state, concluding that it instead largely benefits Canada by moving fuel through Michigan.

Bridge reporter Lindsay VanHulle contributed to this report.

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