State regulators in Michigan have approved a permit needed for Enbridge's efforts to build a tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac to house a replacement section of its Line 5 pipeline.
The approval by the Michigan Public Service Commission comes despite ongoing efforts by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and state Attorney General Dana Nessel to shut the 540,000-barrel-a-day mixed-products pipeline.
In an announcement about the Friday decision, the MPSC said it approved the tunnel-siting permit after determining there was a public need to replace the four-mile section of pipeline that currently sits exposed on the bottom of the straits, which connect Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.
The MPSC said that without the pipeline, "suppliers would need to use higher-risk and costlier alternative fuel supply sources and transportation for Michigan customers, including those who use propane for home heating."
The MPSC said that relying on other forms of transportation--such as by truck, rail, oil tanker or barges--to move products now carried by the pipeline would increase the risk of spills that could significantly harm the Great Lakes.
"There are no feasible and prudent alternatives to the replacement project pursuant to the Michigan Environmental Protection Act," the commission's statement said.
The commission said the tunnel would be a significant improvement over the existing pipeline configuration, reducing the risk of anchor strikes while also serving to contain any potential spill within the tunnel.
The commission voted 2-0 to approve the permit, with Chairman Daniel Scripps and Commissioner Katherine Peretick voting in favor and Commissioner Alessandra Carreon abstaining.
Both Scripps and Peretick were appointed by Whitmer, who had campaigned on a pledge to shut the pipeline.
On Monday, Enbridge said the MPSC approval was "a major step forward in making the Great Lakes Tunnel Project a reality."
"The MPSC carefully examined this complex issue and considered many viewpoints, questions, concerns, and ideas," the company said in a statement. "Ultimately, the MPSC agreed with its staff's conclusions that Line 5 transports critically needed energy for Michigan and the region and placing the Line 5 pipeline in the Great Lakes Tunnel better protects the Great Lakes."
The Canadian company said it is ready to begin work on the project once it receives necessary approvals from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In April, the corps said its draft Environmental Impact Statement on the project, originally targeted for completion late this year, now probably won't be ready until spring 2025.
Stacey LaRouche, Whitmer's press secretary, on Monday said the governor's office was reviewing the MPSC decision.
"The federal government is also conducting its own review of Enbridge's proposal, which remains pending, and the continued operation of the dual pipelines is still the subject of ongoing litigation," LaRouche said.
The 645-mile pipeline carries light crude and mixed NGLs from Superior, Wis., to Sarnia, Ontario. Line 5 supplies about 28% of the refining feedstock for Marathon Petroleum Corp.'s Detroit refinery, Enbridge has said. It also supplies refineries in Toledo, Ohio, operated by PBF Energy Inc. and BP/Cenovus. In Canada, Suncor Energy's 85,000 b/d refinery in Sarnia as well as fractionation facilities in the city also rely on Line 5.
In addition, the pipeline supplies about 55% of Michigan's total propane needs and 65% of the propane used in the Upper Peninsula and Northern Michigan.
The state and Enbridge have been involved in an ongoing legal dispute over Whitmer's efforts to shut the pipeline. The governor in 2020 said she was revoking Line 5's state-granted easements. Whitmer claimed Enbridge had repeatedly violated terms of the easement agreement and that the possibility of a spill into the Great Lakes posed too great an environmental risk. But
Enbridge ignored her order to stop operation of the underwater section by May 2021, saying only the federal government has authority over interstate pipelines such as Line 5. A federal judge has so far sided with Enbridge.
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--Reporting by Steve Cronin, firstname.lastname@example.org; Editing by Frank Tang, email@example.com
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