Michigan governor open to allowing Great Lakes oil tunnel

FILE - In this June 8, 2017, file photo, fresh nuts, bolts and fittings are ready to be added to the east leg of the pipeline near St. Ignace, Mich., as Enbridge Inc., prepares to test the east and west sides of the Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac in Mackinaw City, Mich. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer says she’s open to allowing construction of an oil pipeline tunnel beneath the channel where Lakes Huron and Michigan meet. Whitmer told reporters Wednesday, APRIL 17, 2019, in Lansing, her goal remains getting Enbridge’s Line 5 out of the Straits of Mackinac as quickly as possible. (Dale G Young/Detroit News via AP, File)

LANSING, Mich. — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Wednesday that she's open to allowing construction of an oil transport tunnel beneath the channel where Lakes Huron and Michigan meet, despite previously halting work on a tunnel plan developed by her predecessor.

Whitmer told reporters she wanted as quickly as possible to shut down Enbridge's Line 5, which carries oil and natural gas liquids between Superior, Wisconsin, and Sarnia, Ontario. A more than 4-mile-long (6.4-kilometer-long) segment of the line divides into two pipes that run along the bottomlands of the Straits of Mackinac, which links Michigan's two peninsulas.

"There's no quick, easy solutions here, but if the goal is to get the pipeline out of the water, I think the only responsible thing to do is to pursue any strategy that gets us there, including the possibility of a tunnel," the Democrat said.

Environmental groups that supported Whitmer's election last fall urged her to reject the tunnel option and move quickly to shut down the underwater Line 5 segment, as she pledged to do during her campaign. Republicans in the state Legislature welcomed what they described as Whitmer's "about-face" on the issue but accused her of wasting time.

Former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder wrapped up a deal with Enbridge toward the end of his term calling for a new pipeline segment that would be housed in a tunnel to be drilled through bedrock beneath the lakebed. Once the new line was completed, the existing twin pipes, in place since 1953, would be decommissioned.

Whitmer ordered state agencies not to proceed with the Snyder plan after Attorney General Dana Nessel released an opinion last month saying a law enacted in December to implement the deal was unconstitutional.

But Whitmer never ruled out the idea of a tunnel. The Detroit News reported Wednesday that her administration had restarted talks with Enbridge, a Canadian company based in Calgary, Alberta. Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown told The Associated Press that discussions with the company and advocacy groups "are ongoing."

Responding to questions after an unrelated event, Whitmer said she was pushing "to get the pipeline out of the water at the earliest possible moment."

Attempting to shut down the twin lines immediately by revoking a state easement could prompt a court battle that might keep them operating even longer than called for under the Snyder deal, Whitmer said. It envisions completing the tunnel in 2024, although earlier timelines suggested the process could take seven to 10 years.

Steve Chester, a former director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, is among members of a team advising Whitmer on the matter, Brown said.

The pipeline project is supported by labor organizations friendly to Whitmer because of the jobs it would create. But environmental groups issued a flurry of statements Wednesday calling on her to seek alternatives.

"A tunnel would prolong the risk of an oil spill along 400 inland waters and Lake Michigan shoreline along which Line 5 runs in Michigan," said Sean McBrearty, coordinator of a coalition called Oil & Water Don't Mix. "Moreover, to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we must rapidly move off fossil fuels."

State House GOP Floor Leader Triston Cole of Mancelona said Whitmer should have backed the Snyder plan instead of "placating her political base."

"By stopping Line 5 reconstruction in the first place, the governor created a false crisis, which wasted valuable time and money spent planning for the project," Cole said.

Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy said the company was continuing to "provide information to the governor's office and to seek clarification from the administration on a path forward for the tunnel project."


Flesher reported from Traverse City, Michigan.

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