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WMEAC: Line 5 tunnel beneath the Straits: What’s the rush?

• Nov 16, 2018 at 3:00 PM

On the morning of Nov. 7, Michiganders awoke to news that Gretchen Whitmer had won the state governor’s race. The margin of victory, slightly over 400,000 votes, spoke volumes about the direction the majority of voters want for the top office in Lansing.

During an election campaign that stayed relatively civil and focused on real issues affecting our state, Republican nominee Bill Schuette and Ms. Whitmer seemed to have one area of commonality: Both advocated for a shutdown of Enbridge Line 5, which pumps roughly 23 million gallons of oil and natural gas daily under the Straits of Mackinac.

At least that was how the campaign initially shaped up.

As Gov. Snyder continued to hammer out details of a (mostly secret) deal with Enbridge, a plan that seemed more fitting for a Jules Verne story finally emerged: Enbridge would tunnel 100 feet below the Straits, through solid bedrock, in order to protect the pipeline from potential anchor strikes, torsion from unruly currents that at times can be stronger than the ocean’s, and even sabotage by a terrorist act.

I’ll skip all the details (and criticisms of them) on the tunnel plan here, as every outlet from MLive to The Detroit Free Press to the Grand Haven Tribune has covered it. Of utmost concern is that the current Line 5 pipeline, given a 50-year life expectancy when laid in 1953, would be forced to continue to operate until somewhere between 2025 and 2029, based on estimates of the time needed to complete the tunnel. Under the longer estimate, Enbridge would be pushing its infrastructure literally 25 years longer than its engineers designed the equipment to function.

However, Mr. Schuette did pivot once Gov. Snyder announced the tunnel plan, and where he once agreed that Line 5 should be shut down, now voiced his support of the Enbridge tunnel plan as a way to keep Line 5 in operation, theoretically in perpetuity, or at least for the duration of the first 99-year lease proposed by Snyder between the Mackinac Bridge Authority and Enbridge.

Whether this position helped or damaged Mr. Schuette’s campaign during the final months (the tunnel plan was announced in early October) is anyone’s guess. What is undebatable, however, is that Mr. Schuette lost by over 400,000 votes, a much wider margin than Snyder’s victory in 2014. Gov.-elect Whitmer, and the elected Attorney General Dana Nessel, have vowed that Line 5 should be removed from the Straits in order to mitigate the unnecessary and unbeneficial risk that the citizens of Michigan bear on behalf of a privately owned, foreign-based company.

Suddenly the governor’s office sees the need to act. With the Authority stacked in Mr. Snyder’s favor (all seven members are Snyder appointees) and his time in office down to less than two months, it may be all hands on deck during Lame Duck in order to push Senate Bill 1197 across the finish line. SB 1197 expands the role of the Bridge Authority to allow for owning and operating a tunnel; the legality of the MBA owning the tunnel without new legislation is questionable and is a litigious window of vulnerability the administration knows it must close in order to tie the hands of the new administration and force a bad deal onto the state.

Of course, the rush to get some sort of deal in place before Gov. Snyder leaves Lansing is not unprecedented. In recent years, Americans have seen a number of last-minute bills and provisions pushed through by both parties after losses forced them to pack their bags and head for the exits.

Few topics are as emotional and no resource is as precious as fresh water and our Great Lakes, however, and playing politics with the Line 5 tunnel deal could be a long-term blow to the Michigan GOP if something were to go awry with the plan, such as delays or massive cost overruns (although theoretically those would be paid for by Enbridge). If the unthinkable occurs and Line 5 ruptures while Enbridge is busy digging a tunnel bargained for during the waning days of the Snyder administration, it will be decades, if not generations, before the Straits as well as the Republican Party approach a semblance of normalcy again in Michigan.

Whitmer campaigned strongly on shutting down Line 5, and Michiganders responded to that message at the ballot box. It would be wise for an administration with an already polluted legacy where water is concerned to let the new administration govern on behalf of the electorate.

About the writer: Bill Wood is the executive director of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC).

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