The Great Lakes Tunnel: displayed and delayed
The tunnel would encase a new section of Enbridge's Line 5 beneath the Straits of Mackinac.
Two doors down from Murdick’s Fudge in St. Ignace, Enbridge’s new information center occupies an old storefront.
“It’s really just a space for the community to come in and get their questions answered about Enbridge,” said Emma Cook, a senior community engagement analyst for the company.
The walls are lined with displays, including photographs from Line 5’s construction in 1953, and geologic maps of the Straits of Mackinac.
But most of the displays aren’t about the past. They’re about the future.
On one wall, a mural depicts the inside of the Great Lakes Tunnel. On the floor, a red circle about 20 feet in diameter shows the actual width of the tunnel’s design. It would cross the Straits more than 100 feet beneath the lakebed, and encase a new four mile section of Line 5.
“It really makes you feel like you’re in the tunnel here,” said Cook. “I think it gives people a good perspective.”
But not everyone shares the perspective that the tunnel is a solution. The project—approved in 2018 by former Governor Rick Snyder—is still in the planning stages.
But it’s become almost as controversial as the dual pipelines it might replace.
“This almost 70-year-old pipeline must be shut down,” said John Welsh, one of many who spoke at a public hearing about the project in St. Ignace last month.
“Enbridge will never build this tunnel,” Welsh said.
He’s not alone in thinking that. Some environmentalists see the tunnel project as a time-buying strategy, to keep the old pipelines running.
“The way that this has played out makes it crystal clear that this corporation does not have the best interest of the Great Lakes in mind,” said Beth Wallace with the National Wildlife Federation. She says a lack of transparency from Enbridge calls the company’s intentions into question.
Since the early summer, environmental groups like the NWF have been trying to get their hands on Enbridge’s request for proposals (RFP.)
The document outlines the construction of the tunnel and includes key information about the project, including estimated timelines and environmental impacts. Once approved by the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority, Enbridge can begin receiving bids from contractors to build the tunnel.
Enbridge submitted its RFP to the Michigan Department of Transportation for approval. But MDOT said it was shown the documents on a private server, and that Enbridge had not yet made the document available for downloading.
When the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority met last month with the RFP approval on the agenda, it still wasn’t accessible to the public.
Wallace said that if the company intended to build the tunnel as soon as possible, they would go the extra mile to keep the public in the loop.
“I see every sign that Enbridge’s main game, at this epic point, is delay,” Wallace said.
Bob Lehto is the regional operations manager for Enbridge. He’s heard this theory before.
“It’s frustrating because I hear that too, that this is some sort of smokeshow,” Lehto said. “I don’t know in what other way we can commit to it.”
The company has paid for the tunnel's design, done geologic surveys, purchased land on both sides of the Straits, and opened its information center earlier this month.
“We've spent 100 million dollars already,” Lehto said. “What more proof do people want and need?”
What some want is more transparency.
After multiple Freedom of Information Act requests to see Enbridge’s RFP were denied, the National Wildlife Federation sued the state. Evidently, MDOT was able to make the document publicly accessible late last week.
The RFP doesn’t confirm the theory of the tunnel as a “smokeshow,” like Bob Lehto keeps hearing. But it does confirm that Line 5 won't be housed in a tunnel until at least 2028. That’s four years later than the timeline Enbridge gave when the project was approved.
Opponents say that ending Line 5’s threat to the Great Lakes can’t wait seven years. And supporters don’t want the project delayed either.
“We could be getting more done to protect the environment and human health,” said Mark Griffin, president of the Michigan Petroleum Association.
Griffin is also a member of Great Lakes Michigan Jobs, a coalition of labor unions and industry workers advocating for the tunnel project. He doesn’t accredit the delayed timeline to Enbridge, but to layers of bureaucracy and opposition from environmentalists.
“Their negativism is actually continuing to endanger the Great Lakes,” Griffin said.
The US Army Corps of Engineers is still drafting an Environmental Impact Statement for the project, which could take years. Opponents of Line 5 feel the company is dragging its feet. And ongoing litigation between Michigan and Enbridge was—until recently—at a standstill.
On Tuesday, District Judge Janet Neff denied Michigan’s motion to keep the case in state court, and granted the Government of Canada’s motion to file an amicus brief on a 1977 treaty with the U.S.
Canada invoked the treaty last month, which has a clause guaranteeing the uninterrupted flow of pipelines across the border. Serving in the U.S. Senate that ratified it was one Joe Biden of Delaware.
Leaders from Michigan’s twelve federally recognized tribes signed a letter to now-President Biden, highlighting another treaty between nations that predates the energy crisis of the 1970s.
The 1836 Treaty of Washington guarantees the tribes’ rights to hunt, fish and harvest food in their ceded territories: rights that tribal leaders say are endangered by Line 5.
Meanwhile, the two 20-inch pipes continue to move crude oil and natural gas liquids to and through the Upper Great Lakes.