Enbridge seeks court ruling on Great Lakes oil pipeline deal

Opponents contend Enbridge’s refusal to shut down the pipeline until the tunnel is completed means the straits area would be endangered

Enbridge Inc. said Thursday it will go to court after failing to strike a deal with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on building an oil pipeline tunnel beneath the channel that connects Lakes Huron and Michigan.

The Canadian company said it will ask the state Court of Claims to determine the legality of a construction agreement it reached last fall with Whitmer’s predecessor, Republican Rick Snyder. The tunnel would house a replacement for twin pipelines that run across the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac.

The pipelines are part of Enbridge’s Line 5, which carries 23 million gallons (87 million litres) of crude oil and natural gas liquids daily between Superior, Wisconsin, and Sarnia, Ontario.

Whitmer, a Democrat who took office in January, ordered her administration not to implement the Snyder plan after Attorney General Dana Nessel said authorizing legislation enacted in December violated the state constitution.

The governor has indicated she might accept a tunnel, which Enbridge says it could finish by 2024, when it would decommission the existing pipes. But Whitmer is demanding a Line 5 shutdown within two years, said Guy Jarvis, the company’s executive vice-president for liquids pipelines. The tunnel “cannot possibly be completed” that soon, he said.

“We are fully committed to building this tunnel,” Jarvis said in a conference call with reporters. “However, the state has declared the existing agreements are not valid and has offered no viable path forward, leaving us no choice but to seek a declaration from the court that the agreements are valid and enforceable.”

The Michigan Court of Claims rules on civil actions filed against the state and its agencies.

Jarvis said Enbridge hasn’t closed the door on further talks. But a spokeswoman for Whitmer, who had set a Monday deadline for coming to terms, said Enbridge had “walked away from the negotiating table.”

“It is now abundantly clear that Enbridge … is only interested in protecting its bottom line,” spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said.

Nessel spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney said she was “pleased to know that Enbridge shares the attorney general’s interest in securing an expedited resolution to this matter. We look forward to seeing them in court.”

The apparent impasse and potential for a lengthy court battle leaves uncertain the future of Line 5, long a target of environmentalists and other critics who contend the 4-mile-long underwater segment is vulnerable to a rupture that could contaminate hundreds of miles of Great Lakes waters and shorelines.

Enbridge insists the twin pipes, which have been in place since 1953, are in sound condition and could operate indefinitely. But the company, based in Calgary, Alberta, said it is willing to install a tunnel in bedrock 100 feet beneath the lakebed and foot the estimated $500 million bill to eliminate virtually any possibility of a leak.

Opponents contend Enbridge’s refusal to shut down the pipeline until the tunnel is completed means the straits area would be endangered for at least another five years. They point to a vessel anchor strike in April 2018 that dented both pipes while damaging three nearby electric cables, which leaked 800 gallons of insulating mineral oil.

A report this week from the National Transportation Safety Board said crew of the tugboat and barge failed to properly secure the anchor, which dragged along the bottom of the straits, some 230 feet below the surface.

Brown said the report underscores that the dual pipelines are “a sitting duck” and Enbridge cannot prevent another anchor strike, despite additional precautions ordered by the U.S. Coast Guard after last year’s incident.

“Going forward, the governor will continue working with experts to ensure Michigan’s energy security, to preserve the Great Lakes, and to protect Michigan’s economy,” Brown said.

Lee Chatfield, Republican speaker of the state House who supports the tunnel plan, said he hoped the courts “uphold the democratically-enacted law to protect northern Michigan and our entire state.”

Jim Holcomb, general counsel for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, also praised Enbridge’s move. Environmental groups criticized it.

“The backroom deal to keep Canadian oil pumping under our Great Lakes was jammed through” during a lame-duck legislative session “and will only keep our Great Lakes at risk of a disastrous oil spill,” said Lisa Wozniak of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.

AP reporter David Eggert in Lansing contributed to this story.

John Flesher, The Associated Press

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