By JOHN FLESHER and DAVID EGGERT
LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder hopes to use the final weeks of his time in office to lock in a deal allowing the construction of a hotly debated oil-pipeline tunnel beneath a channel linking two of the Great Lakes — a plan his successor opposes but may be powerless to stop.
The two-term Republican and his team are working on several fronts to seal an agreement with the Canadian oil-transport giant Enbridge to replace the underwater segment of the company’s Line 5, which carries about 23 million gallons of oil and natural-gas liquids daily between Superior, Wisconsin, and Sarnia, Ontario, traversing large parts of northern Michigan.
A more than 4-mile-long section, divided into two pipes, lies on the floor of the churning Straits of Mackinac, where lakes Huron and Michigan converge. Laid in 1953, the twin pipelines are a frequent subject of criticism by environmentalists, native tribes, tourism-related businesses and others who say they’re ripe for a spill that could do catastrophic damage to the lakes and the regional economy.
Although Enbridge insists the pipelines are in sound condition, the company reached an agreement with Snyder’s administration in October to decommission them and drill a tunnel for a new line through bedrock below the straits. The project would take seven to 10 years and cost $350 million to $500 million, which Enbridge would pay.
Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer, elected this month, pledged during her campaign to shut down Line 5 and criticized the tunnel plan. Whitmer takes office in January and has said the Snyder administration should not steamroll the plan to enactment in the meantime.
But Snyder’s team is plowing ahead. Keith Creagh, director of the Department of Natural Resources, told The Associated Press this week that he expects the final steps to be completed before Snyder leaves office.
“This is not a rush to finish,” Creagh said. “This is a culmination of four-plus years of looking at a very complex issue.”
A Republican-backed bill to be considered during a lame-duck legislative session resuming Tuesday would designate the Mackinac Bridge Authority as the owner of the tunnel, giving it responsibility for overseeing the construction of the project and managing its operations while leasing it to Enbridge and other possible users, such as electric-cable companies. Snyder’s office is also requesting $4.5 million for administrative costs and radar to monitor wave heights in the straits.
The seven-member bridge authority, whose sole responsibility since its establishment in the 1950s has been to maintain the vehicular bridge that crosses the straits and links Michigan’s two peninsulas, heard from supporters and opponents on Nov. 8 but took no action. Its next scheduled meeting is in February, but Creagh said he hopes the group will convene before January to ratify the tunnel plan. Snyder recently filled four vacancies on the authority, giving his appointees the majority.
The Democratic chairman of the authority, Patrick “Shorty” Gleason, suggested he has little interest in calling a special meeting in December to accept oversight responsibility for the proposed structure before the governorship changes hands.
“If they think I or any member of the Mackinac Bridge Authority can be given an agreement with absolutely no negotiations or discussions with Enbridge and have it resolved within a couple weeks, there’s no way that’s possible,” he said. Gleason said the incoming administration’s views are “equally important,” and he hopes Snyder and Whitmer discuss the issue.