Line 5 tunnel going as planned despite disputes

Enbridge Director of State Government Relations Peter Holran gives an update to attendees of the U.P. Energy Summit at Northern Michigan University on Friday. Holran told attendees that geological testing to determine tunnel placement is already underway. (Journal photo by Lisa Bowers)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first story in a four-part series that focuses on topics discussed during the U.P. Energy Summit held June 14 in Marquette.

MARQUETTE — Enbridge plans to move forward with a proposed tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac that would replace the politically embattled Line 5.

The 645-mile-long gas and oil pipeline that carries crude oil and natural gas products from Superior, Wisconsin, to Sarnia, Ontario, Canada is a critical part of national energy infrastructure, Enbridge Director of State Government Relations Peter Holran told those gathered for the U.P. Energy Summit at Northern Michigan University on Friday.

“What we really need to be impressing upon people, we believe, is that it’s a debate about energy policy, energy future,” Holran said. “It’s a debate that we need to have. These are important debates and discussions, but we also need to take it into full context that there is a system of systems. Line 5 is crucial, not just to the U.P. and Michigan, but really, I would argue, to the nation.”

He said Enbridge has committed $500 million to the construction of the tunnel, which would house a segment of pipeline to replace the 66-year-old infrastructure that is currently situated on the bottom of the Straits.

“This state-of-the-art Line 5 tunnel across the Straits of Mackinac demonstrates Enbridge’s commitment to Michigan’s natural resources,” Holran said. “We are replacing energy infrastructure, we are upholding a promise to protect the Great Lakes and we are continuing to safely meet Michigan’s energy needs today and well into the future.”

Holran did not speak to the audience specifically about pending legal battles surrounding the project. Attorney General Dana Nessel issued an opinion in March declaring the Legislature’s authorization of the construction of a pipeline tunnel to replace a 4-mile-long segment of Line 5 unconstitutional. As a result, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive directive to halt all state action on the planned tunnel.

Activists and environmental groups, fearing an oil spill in the Straits, have called on state officials to shut down the aging pipeline for years.

Nessel and Whitmer, both Democrats, promised during their political campaigns to shut down Line 5 due to environmental and ecological concerns.

Whitmer and Enbridge executives have been attempting to reach a new pipeline/tunnel deal for several weeks, but negotiations broke down on June 6, with an announcement from the oil company that it would sue the state to protect the proposed development.

Holran told attendees Friday that the company has made concessions to the Whitmer administration regarding the project timeline, which puts completion of both the tunnel and pipeline in 2023 or 2024.

“When we signed all our commitments last year, the discussion with Gov. (Rick) Snyder was around a project that would take seven to 10 years,” Holran said. “We were very comfortable with that number. As we started to put our design teams on this and started to work on it, we realized we could do it a lot faster. Gov. Whitmer’s office has asked us directly, ‘I need you to do it a lot faster.'”

Holran said rock and soil sampling has already begun, and the company expects to have equipment in the area soon to take geological samples by drilling 6-inch-diameter holes up to 150 feet into the lakebed to determine the best place for the tunnel.

“We have a barge in the next few weeks that will be stabilized, jacked up in the shallow waters and will be able to take the boring samples,” Holran said. “And then by July, we anticipate that there will be a vessel that will sail into the Great Lakes and into the Straits and will help us with the deep-water boring. It will actually stabilize itself in any weather and will help us with that precision drilling at a precise location 250 feet below the water and another 100 to 150 feet below that. But that vessel, we are going to make a commitment in just over a week or so and get that sailing over into the straits. It’ll be quite a sight once it gets out there on the lakes in probably July, August, September.”

Once the results of the geological studies are in, Holran said, tunnel design work can begin in early 2020, and, in order to push the timeline up even further, the company will begin applying for state and federal permits associated with the project before the design is completely finished.

“We are going to be putting those applications in as soon as possible; it may be a little out of step,” Holran said. “Usually companies wait for the designs to be done so that everything is in place before they go out for their applications.”

The 300-foot-long custom-built tunnel boring machine is another element of the project where the company will save time, Holran said.

“We have committed to the governor that we will order the boring machine even before those final designs and the final permitting is done,” Holran said. “And that is out of sequence for how tunneling gets done, but we feel that’s important and we feel we can probably save the project nine to 12 months by going out and investing in that boring machine.”

If all goes as expected, Holran said the company should have all the state, local and federal permits for the project by the end of 2021.

“(The) tunnel boring machine will move about 40 feet per day, five days per week, which means it would take about two years to travel the full 4.1 miles across the straits,” Holran said. “Pipe supports with rollers would be bolted along the wall, and pipe pushed along the tunnel, one long segment at a time. (The tunnel would be) equipped with a ventilation system to provide access to maintenance crews.”

At that distance, installation of the transmission pipeline could take six to eight months, he said.

Holran said ultimately the company wants to honor the wishes of the state leaders, but, he added, the company believes Line 5 is safe.

“Over the last several years, Enbridge worked with the previous administration to come up with, in a very collaborative way, to come up with some commitments, but also some vision on how we need to move forward. How can we do better?” Holran told attendees Friday. “But the main thing that I want you to leave with today, is the pipeline is safe. (We are) operating in compliance with all our state and federal regulations and our inspections and operations of the pipeline far exceed the measures set be those regulations. Line 5 today represents the most economical and also the safest way to move energy distances of (500) or 600 miles, which Line 5 does, and Line 5 is safe, and we go every day looking for ways that we can make it safer.”

Lisa Bowers can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is lbowers@miningjournal.net.