LANSING — The Michigan Senate approved legislation Wednesday aiming to lock in a proposal to construct a tunnel to protect Line 5, Enbridge Energy’s 65-year-old oil pipeline beneath the Straits of Mackinac.
An amended Senate Bill 1197 passed 25-13 during another busy day in the Legislature’s lame duck session. The legislation would create a three-member authority to oversee the proposed $350 million to $500 million tunnel.
Gov. Rick Snyder, a term-limited Republican, wants to swap out twin pipelines in the Straits for a new pipe that would be protected in a bedrock tunnel 100 feet below the lake bottom.
The legislation would allow him to appoint members to the board before the end of the month, when his term ends and he’s succeeded by Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat and opponent of Line 5.
The plan has drawn opposition from environmentalists and many Democrats who want the pipeline shut down, citing fears of a catastrophic oil spill in the Great Lakes.
The bill drew no debate Wednesday, after one Democrat urged his colleagues to pass it. Sen. Adam Hollier of Detroit said the tunnel would simultaneously reduce spill risks and ensure residents of the Upper Peninsula would have access to propane from the pipeline.
“When we talk about safety, and we talk jobs, those things came second — they came second to making sure people were being warm in the winter,” said Hollier, the only Senate Democrat to support the legislation.
“I’m concerned about our environment and about the Straits. And building this tunnel, which is a $500 million investment in Michigan will prevent [a spill].”
Three Republicans voted against the bill: Sens. Joe Hune of Fowlerville, Rick Jones of Grand Ledge and Tonya Schuitmaker of Lawton.
Enbridge and the state announced a deal in October to pursue the tunnel, which Enbridge would fund. The project is expected to take seven to 10 years.
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 — and Republican lawmakers worked with Snyder to re-write it.
Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, offered the substitute bill that cleared the Senate on Wednesday. It would create an authority focused on owning, operating and overseeing the tunnel, which could also house other utility lines beneath the Straits.
Members of the new Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority would serve six-year terms.
Snyder’s appointments would be subject to the advice and consent of the Senate, and no more than two could represent the same political party.
The bill seeks to insulate the state from any costs and legal liability associated with the pipeline and tunnel, ensuring Enbridge bore those risks.
The House must now approve the legislation before it could land on Snyder’s desk.
Line 5 can transport up to 540,000 barrels of light crude oil per day from Superior, Wisconsin, to Sarnia, Ontario.
Calling for a shutdown, environmental groups have raised a number of arguments about the risks of a spill, and they 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 owned 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 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.
“We remain opposed to Senate Bill 1197, which would keep the damaged Line 5 Pipeline in operation for another decade or more, prolonging the risk of a disastrous oil spill in our Great Lakes,” Lisa Wozniak, executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters said in a statement Wednesday.
“Creating a new authority to oversee the pipeline does not change the fact that our most precious natural resource will remain at risk.”