Army Corps Extends Line 5 Permit Process
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently announced that it will extend the federal permitting process for the Enbridge Line 5 tunnel project, delaying construction until at least 2026.
The Army Corps must approve permits required under the federal Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 and the Clean Water Act before work can begin and previously planned to publish its draft environmental impact statement later this year.
However, according to reports, the draft statement for the project is now expected to arrive sometime in the spring of 2025. After opening its initial comment period for the project last year, the Army Corps reportedly received more than 17,000 comments.
"We greatly appreciate the meaningful input received throughout scoping and will use this information to shape studies and continuing consultations throughout development of our draft environmental impact statement,” Detroit District Commander Lt. Col. Brett Boyle said.
Enbridge, however, said in a statement they are “disappointed” with the extended timeline, noting that its application for the Great Lakes Tunnel Project was submitted in April 2020 and the Army Corps is estimating that it will need six years to review and issue a decision for the project.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said its review of a proposed tunnel beneath Michigan’s Straits of Mackinac for the Line 5 pipeline won’t be done until at least spring 2025. https://t.co/nrLfC6497I— MLive (@MLive) March 24, 2023
Because the tunnel would take four years to build, the line will not be operable until 2030 if the permit is approved in 2026.
“While we are supportive of a thorough, comprehensive and carefully considered permitting process that ensures adequate opportunity for review and comment, we are disappointed with the extended timeline for a project of this scope,” wrote the company.
“The Great Lakes Tunnel Project covers only approximately four miles in length, will require no construction within the waters of the Straits, and is anticipated to impact less than one-quarter acre of wetlands.”
Enbridge Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer Mike Fernandez told reporters that the company is in “conversation” with the Biden White House about accelerating the timeline.
“We can’t do anything in terms of actually putting a shovel in the ground and doing it until we’ve got that permit in hand from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” he said. “So all of that said, our main aim now is really to think about, is there any streamlining of that process? Is there any way to expedite the process?”
Enbridge Pipeline Saga
In July 2017, Michigan Pipeline Safety Advisory Board released a Dynamic Risk Assessments Inc.-prepared assessment of Enbridge Energy’s Line 5 liquid pipeline that looked at the risks related to keeping the current pipeline as well as alternatives, including new lines in or around the straits, a new pipeline elsewhere or a complete abandonment of the line.
According to Dynamic Risk, the biggest threats to the existing pipeline were anchor hooking, incorrect operations, vortex-induced vibration and spanning stress. A spill in the straits, the firm contends, would likely incur $100-200 million in costs, about 60% of that covering environmental cleanup. Those figures account for what Dynamic Risk calls “objective assessments of credible risks,” and not a worst-case scenario.
By June 2018, Enbridge Energy released its report to the state of Michigan on possible replacement of its Line 5 pipeline, concluding that a tunnel or an open cut with secondary containment would be feasible methods for replacing the 65-year-old liquids pipeline.
In the report, Enbridge says its study, performed by independent consultants, showed a tunnel created by a tunnel-boring machine could be a feasible method of installing a new pipeline to replace Line 5. Such a tunnel would have a 10-foot inside diameter and would stretch four miles long, 100 feet below the deepest part of the Straits.
A tunnel would cost $350-500 million and would replace the dual 20-inch pipelines comprising the current Line 5 with one 30-inch line. The concrete tunnel would be lined with precast concrete tunnel lining; the annulus outside the tunnel lining would be filled with cement grout.
In December, the Michigan Senate voted to create the three-member Mackinac Straights Corridor Authority, an entity that would oversee the construction of the replacement pipeline and a new utility tunnel.
At the beginning of March 2019, Enbridge announced that it hired Arup (London) to design the tunnel and Great Lakes Tunnel Constructors—a partnership between Jay Dee Contractors Inc. (Livonia, Michigan) and Obayashi Corp. (Tokyo)—to build it. At the time of the announcement, the company was still seeking construction permits from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
By the end of the month, Enbridge officials announced that while installing screw anchors to secure sections of its Line 5 in the channel they discovered four spots where protective coatings had worn away from the underwater oil pipeline and were repaired within 10 days of the discovery.
In October, Enbridge released a new animation video showing what the Great Lakes Tunnel Project process and construction for the Line 5 tunnel replacement project in the Straits of Mackinac would look like. According to the video, using a roughly 500-foot-long tunnel boring machine, the proposed tunnel will be built through rock, deep below the lake bed, in an effort to add further protection of Michigan waters, while also ensuring an uninterrupted supply of reliable, affordable energy.
The tunnel itself is reported to be made up of a reinforced concrete liner measuring one foot thick, with grout completing the seal. Pipe supports, complete with rollers, will be bolted along the inside of the tunnel walls. It also plans to be equipped with drainage, leak detection equipment and electronic communications.
As for the North shore, a vertical shaft is slated to be constructed, where the tunnel boring machine will be retrieved and dismantled after it made its way across the straits—an endeavor projected to take roughly two years, moving at an average of 40 feet a day, five days a week.
Over the course of the construction, saturation divers will be used to perform regular inspection and maintenance because of the high hydrostatic pressure experienced during construction.
In November 2021, the White House has announced that the United States and Canada are expected to “engage constructively” in negotiations regarding the Enbridge Energy Line 5 pipeline. The announcement arrives after Canada formally invoked a provision from 1977 Transit Pipelines Treaty in October.
Enbridge continued operations despite a May 12 deadline from Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer to cease pumping oil through the pipeline.
In February last year, the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority approved Enbridge’s request to begin seeking proposals for the tunnel that will house the Line 5 pipeline. Company officials were preparing to request proposals and select a contractor for what they call a “critical utility and infrastructure modernization project.” They also planned to put together a team to build the tunnel as the project moves forward.
Enbridge has already reportedly invested $100 million towards the project, with completion of construction now expected for 2028. Permits from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy have been obtained for the tunnel, but permits are still needed from the Michigan Public Service Commission and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
However, officials noted at the time that Enbridge's bidding and contracting process will run parallel to the Corps' environmental review.
Lawsuits & Cancellation Efforts
Since the project was announced, there have been various attempts to either delay or cancel the Line 5 project altogether. In August 2018, a lawsuit was filed by the Environmental Law and Policy Center and the National Wildlife Fund alleged that a top Coast Guard official testified under oath in front of Congress the year before that the service was not adequately prepared for a worst-case spill on the line, though the Coast Guard does have a contingency plan in place to do just that.
The following year, in wake of the law previously created to develop a three-member Mackinac Straights Corridor Authority was ruled unconstitutional by the state attorney general. At the time, Gov. Whitmer asked for Attorney General Dana Nessel's legal opinion. In Whitmer’s view, the law was invalid and went as far as to halt state agencies’ attempts to facilitate construction on the tunnel.
State legislature Republicans dismissed Whitmer’s opinion, citing that a judge has already allowed the law to be as is.
In November 2020, Whitmer and Michigan Department of Natural Resources Director Dan Eichinger informed Enbridge that they were revoking the 1953 easement that allows for pipeline operations through the Straits of Mackinac.
Previously under an agreement with the state, Enbridge had agreed to protect the pipeline from corrosion by maintaining a multilayered coating and placing physical supports on the infrastructure, no more than 75 feet apart. However, Michigan authorities have discovered that Enbridge violated the terms of this agreement and failed to protect the pipeline from potential boat anchor damages.
While pipeline operations traditionally fall under federal jurisdiction, Whitmer reported that she was acting under the state’s public trust doctrine, which requires state authorities to protect the Great Lakes.