Michigan regulator: Enbridge needs permission to move Line 5 into tunnel

A photo Enbridge provided to the state shows the damaged anchor support on the Line 5 lake bottom petroleum pipeline. A judge has ordered the pipeline temporarily shut down following the damage, which was first noticed earlier in June. (Photo courtesy of Enbridge Energy)

The Michigan Public Service Commission will not give Enbridge Energy carte blanche to relocate the Line 5 pipeline inside a tunnel beneath the Straits of Mackinac, it ruled Tuesday.

The decision triggers a lengthy administrative process to evaluate Enbridge’s plan to relocate the lakebottom petroleum pipeline inside an underground tunnel; a process Line 5 opponents hope will be a key forum for public scrutiny over the pipeline’s future.

Enbridge had asked the commission, Michigan’s energy regulator, to rule that it doesn’t need the state’s permission to relocate Line 5 inside the planned tunnel. The company argued that the commission’s 1953 approval of the existing dual-span lakebottom line also covers its plan to replace that section with a 30-inch diameter pipeline running through a concrete-lined tunnel deep beneath the lakebed. The company already has the state’s initial approval to build the tunnel, but it now needs the commission’s approval to move the pipeline into it.  

The commission rejected the company’s argument and refused to grant its approval Tuesday, opting instead to forward the matter as a so-called “contested case,” allowing Enbridge and the public to debate the matter before an administrative law judge. 

Ultimately, commissioners will decide whether to grant Enbridge’s relocation request. The deliberations will test the loyalties of a commission whose political makeup has changed significantly since Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer took office last year, replacing two former appointees of GOP predecessor Rick Snyder, Republican Norm Saari and Independent Rachel Eubanks, with Democrats Dan Scripps and Tremaine Phillips to create a 2-1 Democratic majority, with the third member, Chair Sally Talberg, being an independent. 

As the commission deliberates on the pipeline, Enbridge is moving forward with the tunnel plan. The company is awaiting state and federal permits with the goal of beginning construction on the tunnel next year.

Multiple parties, including Native American tribal governments and environmental groups who have advocated for the pipeline’s shutdown, have filed motions to intervene in the proceedings. They have long called for the 67-year-old pipeline’s shutdown, arguing it poses an unacceptable oil spill risk in the Straits, where it sits exposed on the lakebottom as it pumps crude oil and natural gas between Ontario and Wisconsin. 

Concerns about the lakebottom pipeline’s safety prompted GOP governor Snyder to negotiate the tunnel agreement with Enbridge in 2018, during the waning days of his administration and before his Democratic successor, Gretchen Whitmer, took office. Gaining the commission’s approval to locate the pipeline inside the tunnel is key to executing the plan.

Attorney General Dana Nessel — like Whitmer, a Democrat who has been critical of Enbridge — opposes the tunnel plan, and has launched lawsuits that aim to shut down the existing lakebottom pipeline and nullify the tunnel agreement. 

The debate over the pipeline’s fate has grown more heated since June 18, when Enbridge discovered “significant damage” to the pipeline and briefly shuttered both spans to investigate. That discovery, and Enbridge’s decision to partially reopen Line 5 two days later without the state’s permission, prompted backlash from Nessel and Whitmer, culminating in a judge’s decision last Thursday to grant Nessel’s request for a temporary restraining order closing Line 5 until further notice.

Ingham County Circuit Court Judge James Jamo has scheduled a hearing Tuesday afternoon to consider whether the temporary shutdown should continue. Enbridge argues the pipeline is safe to operate, and that it answers to federal regulators — not Whitmer or Nessel — on questions of pipeline safety. 

Enbridge officials have said the planned $500-million tunnel would virtually eliminate the threat of a Straits oil spill. But the tunnel won’t be complete until 2024 at the earliest, and Line 5 opponents argue that continuing to operate the lakebottom line in the meantime leaves the Straits vulnerable.

Alissa Day, a regulatory affairs staffer for the commission who raised the issue of Enbridge’s request to the commission Tuesday, said the plan to move Line 5 into the tunnel involves “significant factual and policy questions” that can only be resolved with further deliberation.

Commissioners agreed, voting 3-0 to declare that Enbridge does not have authority to relocate the pipeline without their approval.

In a statement Tuesday, Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy said the company “respects” the decision and “we look forward to the next steps in the regulatory process.”

“We know that the majority of Michiganders support the Great Lakes Tunnel project, including the replacement pipeline at issue in the MPSC proceeding, and we are committed to building it,” the statement said. “We appreciate the timeliness of the decision by the MPSC as it allows us to remain on schedule for completion of the project.”

As it evaluates Enbridge’s request to relocate Line 5 inside the tunnel, the commission will consider a host of questions about the pipeline’s safety, design and environmental impacts, its usefulness to the public, and possible alternatives to the relocation proposal. The process is expected to take at least a year.

Line 5 opponents plan to use the deliberative process to raise concerns about pipeline safety, and broader questions about the wisdom of investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure during a time of growing concern over climate change and economic shifts that have lowered the cost of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. 

“This is an opportunity to closely scrutinize what’s happening with the pipeline,” said Mike Shriberg, Great Lakes regional executive director for the National Wildlife Federation. “It will be the first time that there's a real public debate, in a decision-making forum, about whether Line 5 writ large is in the public interest.”

Already, the commission has received thousands of public comments pertaining to Enbridge’s request, Commission Chair Sally Talberg said Tuesday. 

“It helped inform our decision today,” she said. 

The commission has scheduled a hearing on Aug. 24 to collect further public comment. It has not announced a schedule for proceedings before an administrative law judge.

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Shut Down Line 5
Tue, 06/30/2020 - 12:45pm

Referendum on November ballot. Let We the People decide, not corrupt politicians making backroom deals.

Tue, 06/30/2020 - 5:44pm

Watch the Michigan GOP (and packed courts) try to block and rig any referendum. They want a one party rule, period.

Wed, 07/08/2020 - 12:02pm

Greedy plutocrats.

Tue, 06/30/2020 - 12:56pm

Once again it is made painfully obvious this controversy has nothing to do with the fear of oil leaked into the lake. It is an around the barn attempt for strangling the petroleum industry by people who can't make an honest electable case for such an approach. If I was an Green New Deal Eco Marxist jetting around to different conferences and lobbying, venures spewing CO2 all the way, trying to restructure everyone's lives so they won't, I'd be a bit embarrassed too.

Tue, 06/30/2020 - 5:48pm

So tell us that Enbridge will ensure themselves to pay for any spill and not dump it on us taxpayers. Yes, tell us about their liability insurance. I dare you.
They don't have more than a joke liability insurance policy for some tiny amount and have protected themselves as a LLC so they won't have to pay more than a pittance.
Tell me I'm wrong with facts, evidence. Go ahead, we're waiting for you and your beloved Enbridge to show us their liability policy and max amount.

Michigan Observer
Wed, 07/01/2020 - 6:33pm

Rick may have conveniently forgotten the outcome of the Kalamazoo river event, so let me refresh his memory. Enbridge wound up paying two or three billion dollars in penalties and clean up costs. Consider what they would be paying in the event of a Line 5 failure.

The article says, " But the tunnel won’t be complete until 2024 at the earliest, and Line 5 opponents argue that continuing to operate the lakebottom line in the meantime leaves the Straits vulnerable." Well, no doubt it does, but the word "vulnerable" is not very precise is it? Aren't we all vulnerable when we go grocery shopping, or on a trip? Yet we all do both things. Aren't we all vulnerable when we drive in traffic? And we are much more vulnerable when we drive at seventy miles an hour rather than twenty-five miles an hour? Yet most people routinely commute to work at seventy miles an hour. It is a question of how much risk we are willing to accept. Is there any level of risk, no matter how infinitesimal, that the environmental zealots would find acceptable? Unlikely. As I recall, the actual chance of a failure is one in sixty per year. Or about 1.7%. That is not a trivial risk, but you have to know the potential net benefits (gross benefits minus costs) before you can know whether that risk is too high. Let us take a time frame of five years. The probability that an event won't happen in five years is the probability that it won't happn in one year raised to the fifth power (1-.01667) or .98333 to the fifth power, or .91939. So the probability that it will happen in the space of five years is.0806, or about 8%. Considering that Enbridge will pay $500 million to build the tunnel, and will probably be on the hook for large penalties and cleanup costs. . Every citizen shouuld make their own judgment as to whether the risk is too high.

Hogwash Observer
Wed, 07/08/2020 - 12:10pm

People, just because someone puts it in print doesn't make it true. Michigan Observer's post is full of hogwash. As a shill for Enbridge, would we expect any less?

Michigan Observer, the Kalamazoo River still isn't clean AND your numbers are off by billions.

The Canadian pipeline company Enbridge has been fined $61 million as part of an overall $177 million settlement for a massive 2010 oil spill into Michigan's Kalamazoo River. The spill required years and more than a billion dollars to clean up and highlighted the hazard of pumping heavy tar sands oil through pipelines. Jul 20, 2016

Geez Louise, aren't you afraid of the wrath of God or did you matriculate from Trump University? How much did that set you back?

Face it, we couldn't trust Enbridge then and we can't trust them now.

middle of the mit
Thu, 07/02/2020 - 9:01pm

Have no fear, self regulation is here!


State and feds announce new way to combat 'green slime' STILL FLOWING in Madison Heights (My capitalization)

[[[[Hoping to cut the ongoing cost of keeping the pollution from flowing into Lake St. Clair, state and federal authorities said Tuesday they'll try a new approach at the site of the former plating factory.

Instead of collecting, pumping and trucking away the toxic soup of chemicals that gushes after heavy rains, technicians will start this month injecting into the ground other chemicals to neutralize the toxic brew flowing from a former chrome-plating factory.]]]]


[[[[Gary Sayers owned Electro-Plating Services Inc. in Madison Heights, from where cancer-causing chemicals flowed underground from the plant and onto the freeway shoulder in December. The plant was shut down by state regulators in December 2016 after they found numerous deteriorating drums and tanks brimming with dangerous chemicals, including cyanide, chromium and various acids, stored inside.]]]

Hmm, He was shut down before the leak, and yet the leak happened.

[[[Sayers was sentenced to one year in federal prison in November for illegal storage of hazardous chemicals. He is at the federal prison in Morgantown, West Virginia, and has a projected date of release from BOP custody of Nov. 9.

Madison Heights City Manager Melissa Marsh said Sayers is expected to be on house arrest as of Wednesday.]]]]

Almost 8 months of a 1 year sentence and now he gets to quarantine like the rest of did during his stint in prison. This is why most bad businesses do what they do. Most don't even see a jail cell. They pay a less fine than what they would if they had to fix the problem, and the State/ Feds pick up the rest.

Are you embarrassed by this at all?

Do conservatives even acknowledge it? Because they hardly ever comment on stories when the "Things that are running good, why replace or stop them" FAIL.

Alex Sagady
Tue, 06/30/2020 - 7:43pm

>>>>where it sits exposed on the lakebottom as it pumps crude oil and natural gas between Ontario and Wisconsin.

Whoa....a two-fer of false claims

False claim #1 - That Line 5 transports "natural gas"
Line 5 transports only light, low sulfur crude oil or syncrude, or natural gas liquids.
No "natural gas" is transported in Line 5.

False claim #2 - That Line 5 transports crude oil from Ontario to Wisconsin.
NOPE. You've got that backwards and wrong.

Line 5 transports light crude oil from Superior WI to Marysville, MI, where there is an off-ramp for about 190,000 barrels per day of crude oil directed to Detroit and Toledo refineries. The majority goes on into Ontario at Sarnia, connecting with other pipelines that go to Toronto, Montreal, and Pennsylvania. Some natural gas liquids are drawn off in Rapid River, MI for propane supply and the non-propane fraction is re-injected at Rapid River. At Lewiston, MI, another pipeline injects Michigan-producted crude oil into Line 5.

Wed, 07/01/2020 - 9:56am

Very interesting. What you are saying is the exact opposite of what we have been told about what line 5 actually carries and from where. Where does Superior WI get the crude it sends through line 5?

What's your thought on the tunnel they want to construct? Do you feel the line is essential for the Michigan economy? Thanks for explaining what's actually going on because it makes more sense.

Abe Bubush
Wed, 07/01/2020 - 7:12am

A 50 year old steel pipe in a constant current with pressure variants and physical damage, what could go wrong? It's just PR that the oil company closed the pipeline waiting for people to calm down. The same company screwed up in the Kalamazoo river, and they are still in business.The oil industry is treating the environment like a rented mule. Thank God the Governor and Attorney General are stepping in.

Save our Lakes
Wed, 07/08/2020 - 12:19pm

Abe, I agree that Enbridge has a terrible track record, but I believe it was a 50 easement. Construction on Line 5 was completed in 1953. So Line 5 is much older than 50 years old, more like 67 and in very bad shape, poorly maintained. 25%+ years over its expected expiration date.

Wed, 07/01/2020 - 11:09am

Please shut in down forever. Remember, oil and water don't mix.

Wed, 07/01/2020 - 11:11am

Please shut it down permanently. Remember, oil and water do not mix.

Wed, 07/08/2020 - 12:21pm

K, very well worth repeating!