Mackinac pipeline crossing may have new life after lame duck legislation calls for Enbridge to build tunnel under bedrock

Mackinac Bridge view from Mackinaw City.
Mackinac Bridge view from Mackinaw City.

With just a few weeks before now-former Gov. Rick Snyder’s term ended, the State of Michigan established in legislation the formation of a three-member Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority, which will oversee the building of a $500-million utility tunnel that will replace a controversial oil pipeline.

The legislation will see Enbridge, a Canadian company that has operated the aging Line 5 pipeline system, pay all costs related to the tunnel, although ownership will remain in the government’s hands.

The tunnel will sit 100 feet below the bedrock of Lake Michigan, just west of the Mackinac Bridge, keeping the oil pipeline separated from the environmentally sensitive Great Lakes waters.

The law enacted in the waning days of the legislature stipulates that the Authority’s three-member board can have no more than two members from an individual political party.

Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, now Michigan’s Governor, campaigned, along with Dana Nessel, also a Democrat and Michigan’s new Attorney General, to shut down Line 5 and have since expressed their opposition to the tunnel project.

But Pat Devlin, secretary-treasurer of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council, has said he hopes the new governor can be persuaded that the Line 5 tunnel project is good for Michigan.

Devlin says his members support the pipeline for its jobs and economic development. He also has been quoted as saying the project will have the necessary environmental safeguards.

“If everybody can just take a little pause and let the new administration – our new leadership – get in place and sit down and have those constructive dialogues, I think when the whole story is told opinions are gonna change,” said Devlin.

Several Democrats voted in favor of the legislation because it will lead to years of work for unionized heavy equipment operators and other union labor.

Concerns remain over the track record of Enbridge when it comes to reporting gaps in the protective layer of enamel coating around the 65-year-old twin 20-inch pipelines that lay at the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac.

At least one legislator, House Speaker Lee Chatfield, who represents Emmet and Mackinac counties, where the oil pipeline crosses the water, calls the tunnel project “the best solution we need to protect our beautiful Great Lakes and ensure Northern Michigan families continue to have the resources they need to heat their homes.”

Chatfield also said doing nothing is not an option. “This has been discussed for years. It’s time to move forward.”