TRAVERSE CITY — The Michigan Public Service Commission is seeking comment on whether Enbridge Energy needs its approval to re-site a segment of its Line 5 oil pipeline into a bedrock tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac.
On April 17, Enbridge applied for the authority to site the segment — currently made up of twin pipelines that sit on the lakebed — in the proposed tunnel. And, as an alternative, the company asked the MPSC to rule that it still has authority from the original 1953 construction of the lines.
During a meeting Wednesday, the commission decided to deal with that issue first. It will put Enbridge’s application on hold while it seeks public comment on whether the company needs siting approval a second time.
Sally Talberg chairs the MPSC, and started the virtual meeting by addressing why it was called so soon after the application came in.
“Enbridge’s request for a declaratory ruling is a threshold legal issue of significant public interest and therefore the commission wanted to move quickly to put this out for comment,” she said.
If the commission decides that Enbridge does need its approval for new siting authority, that process takes about a year.
In its application to the MPSC, Enbridge said putting the pipeline in a tunnel "virtually eliminates the already very small risk" of an oil spill.
"The possibility of an anchor strike causing a release will be entirely eliminated," said the application. "There will be multiple layers of protection, including the pipeline, the tunnel — including its concrete liner — and approximately 60 feet to 250 feet of earth between the tunnel and the lakebed of the Straits."
Public comment on the need for MPSC approval will be accepted through May 13th, followed by a two-week reply period.
Enbridge is concurrently applying for tunnel-related permits from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Tribal governments, environmental organizations, Michigan legislators and a handful of individual citizens commented during the virtual meeting. Some typed messages, while some spoke through phone lines.
Kathleen Brosemer, environmental director for the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, said siting authority given in 1953 isn't appropriate for the year 2020 while there is an urgent need to decarbonize the economy.
“Siting a new tunnel at this time virtually assures one of two outcomes,” she said. “No. 1, the economic need for the project will collapse, leaving it a stranded asset, or No. 2, the nation will refuse to change, and within 10 years climate catastrophe will ensue, resulting in economic collapse and no need for the project.”
State senator Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) said those looking to delay the tunnel project just want to force the economy away from oil, and are "wishing on a star that there will be some other alternative.”
“We can’t risk [energy] access to residents based on fears or conjecture of what the future of oil is going to be or what the future of energy provisions are going to be,” said McBroom. “Right now, this is our source of energy.”
Brosemer later responded to McBroom in another typed comment.
“Did you foresee the current oil demand, three months ago? The economy has turned from oil already,” she wrote. “Dinosaurs need to stop spending enormous sums to prop up oil.”
Despite a couple of technical issues with feedback, Talberg said she was pleased with the virtual public comment process.
“I’ve been serving on the commission for nearly 7 years and never have we had so many public comments in a meeting,” she said. “We get excited when we have one person show up and make comment at our typical meetings in Lansing.”