Enbridge Line 5: US panel asks for more details on security risks


A Michigan regulatory panel said Thursday that it needs more information about safety risks before it can rule on Enbridge Energy’s plan to extend a pipeline through a tunnel under a waterway linking two of the Great Lakes.

The state Public Utilities Commission voted 3-0 to seek more details about the potential for explosions and fires involving electrical equipment during construction of the tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac.

Commission approval would be required for Enbridge to replace two existing Line 5 pipelines in the straits, which connect Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, with a new segment that would go through the proposed underground tunnel.

“This has been an extensive process,” said Chairman Dan Scripps. “We want to make sure we get it right.”

Enbridge and the state of Michigan are locked in legal battles over Line 5. The 69-year-old underground pipeline transports Canadian natural gas and petroleum liquids used for propane through northern Michigan and Wisconsin to refineries in Sarnia, Ontario.

A 4-mile-long (6.4-kilometre) section splits into double pipes that cross the bottom of the strait.

Enbridge is defying Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s 2020 order to close the line, a move long sought by environmental groups and Native American tribes who fear a breach would devastate the lakes. The company says the line is in good condition and contends in a federal lawsuit that the Democratic governor does not have jurisdiction to shut it down.

Calgary, Alberta-based Enbridge struck a deal with former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder in 2018 to build the $500 million tunnel. Enbridge has obtained permits from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy and is awaiting word from the US Army Corps of Engineers as well as the Michigan Public Utilities Commission.

The commission said last year it would not pass judgment on whether the entire 645-mile (1,038-kilometre) line should continue to operate, focusing instead on the underwater section.

Its three members are appointed by Whitmer. Scripps and Tremaine Phillips are Democrats, while Katherine Peretick is an independent.

In its Thursday order, the commission said the testimonies, exhibits and briefings included little on the engineering and dangers of the tunnels.

Information on the safety and maintenance of the dual pipelines is also missing, “including leak detection systems and shutdown procedures,” the order says.

Interviewed by phone after the meeting in Lansing, Scripps said that Enbridge had calculated the chance of an oil spill from the tunnel pipe to be “one in a million.” The commission wants to know how the figure was calculated, he said, as well as steps to eliminate even that possibility.

In a statement, Enbridge said it had already provided “extensive” material on those matters, but would answer more questions.

“The engineering and design of the tunnel has been developed in accordance with the tunnel agreement signed with the state and in close coordination with the Strait of Mackinac Corridor Authority to ensure its safety and useful life,” the company said.

The Corridor Authority was created under Snyder to oversee the construction and operation of the tunnel.

Critics of the pipeline praised the commission’s push for more information.

“Enbridge has not proven the feasibility or safety of this project,” said Beth Wallace of the National Wildlife Federation. “Enbridge has shown time and time again that they cannot be trusted to operate Line 5 and should not be trusted to run a tunnel through the Great Lakes.”

The commission’s decision was the latest of many delays on the tunnel, which the company originally promised to complete by 2024. The Army Corps is conducting an extensive environmental impact study.

Enbridge said she remains committed to the project.

The Michigan Great Lakes Jobs Coalition, which represents industry and labor groups, urged the commission to “get back to work, move the tunnel project forward and protect tens of thousands of Michigan jobs.”

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