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Michigan Approves $500 Million Tunnel Plan for Aging Oil Pipeline Under Great Lakes

by Anna

In a move that has sparked controversy, Michigan officials approved a $500 million plan on Friday to encase a segment of an aging oil pipeline in a protective tunnel beneath the Straits of Mackinac, connecting two Great Lakes. The decision, made by the state’s Public Service Commission, was passed with a 2-0 vote, with one commissioner abstaining due to her recent appointment.

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The tunnel project aims to address concerns about the environmental risks posed by the Line 5 pipeline, operated by Enbridge Energy since 1953. The pipeline transports up to 23 million gallons of crude oil and natural gas liquids daily between Superior, Wisconsin, and Sarnia, Ontario. A 4-mile portion of Line 5 crosses the Straits of Mackinac, raising concerns about potential spills and environmental damage.

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The commission’s chairperson, Dan Scripps, emphasized the catastrophic impact of an oil spill in the straits, stating that the tunnel represents the best solution to mitigate the risk while the state transitions to renewable energy sources. However, opponents argue that the project is a costly endeavor that will prolong the reliance on fossil fuels and pose environmental threats.

The approval from the Michigan Public Service Commission is a significant step, but the plan still requires the endorsement of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is currently compiling an environmental impact statement. A final decision on the project may not be reached until 2026.

Enbridge Energy’s Line 5 has faced scrutiny, particularly after a 2010 spill in a Kalamazoo River tributary and the revelation in 2017 that gaps existed in the pipeline’s protective coating. The proposal for a tunnel beneath the lakebed was part of an agreement reached in 2018 between Enbridge and then-Governor Rick Snyder’s administration.

The project has faced opposition from environmentalists, Indigenous tribes, and others who argue that the risks associated with the aging pipeline warrant its closure. Current Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, opposes the continued operation of Line 5 under the straits, even with the proposed tunnel.

While the approval marks a significant development, the controversy surrounding Line 5 and the tunnel project underscores the ongoing debate over the balance between energy infrastructure, environmental protection, and the transition to renewable energy sources. The final decision from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will be a crucial determinant in the fate of the project.

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