By JOHN FLESHER
AP Environmental Writer
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Enbridge Inc. said Monday that it is moving ahead with the collection of rock and soil samples in the Straits of Mackinac while it prepares for a court battle with Michigan’s governor over a planned oil-pipeline tunnel there.
The Canadian company, which has been drilling into the ground on the south side of the channel linking lakes Huron and Michigan, said it will begin using a barge in shallow water this week to bore into the lakebed. A specially equipped vessel in the North Sea will arrive next month for operations in deeper parts of the straits, said Ryan Duffy, an Enbridge spokesman.
The geotechnical operation is among the preliminary work, costing $40 million, that Enbridge has scheduled for this year as it presses ahead with plans to build the tunnel in bedrock 100 feet beneath the lakebed. Once built, the tunnel will house a pipeline that will replace dual pipes that now stretch across the lakebed and are part of Line 5, which carries oil between the city of Superior and Sarnia, Ontario.
After signing a deal last year with former Gov. Rick Snyder, Enbridge received a permit in January for the sampling from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality — since renamed the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.
But in March, state Attorney General Dana Nessel said a law enacted to carry out the deal was in fact in violation of the state constitution. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, then ordered state agencies to stop carrying out the agreement and began negotiating privately with the company about an expedited timetable for completing the tunnel.
Talks broke down earlier this month, as Whitmer pushed to have the tunnel finished in two years and Enbridge insisted the work couldn’t be done before 2024. The company filed a lawsuit with the Michigan Court of Claims seeking a ruling on the legality of its agreement with Snyder.
The Michigan environmental agency told Enbridge last week that it could go ahead with preliminary sampling. The permit allowing that work is “an independent authorization” and remains in effect, said Zach Pohl, a spokesman for Whitmer.
“Based upon the attorney general’s opinion, however, the previous agreements authorizing a tunnel are void,” Pohl said. “The state has not authorized Enbridge to move forward with constructing a tunnel and any work to achieve that objective is done at the company’s own risk.”
Enbridge described the geotechnical sampling as “a strong signal of our commitment” to the $500 million tunnel project.