Snyder seeks to secure Mackinac pipeline in final weeks

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder hopes to use the final weeks of his tenure to lock in a deal allowing 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 Canadian oil transport giant Enbridge for replacing the underwater segment of its Line 5, which carries about 23 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids daily between Superior, Wisconsin, and Sarnia, Ontario, traversing large sections of northern Michigan.

A more than 4-mile-long section, divided into two pipes, lies on the floor of the churning Straits of Mackinac, the convergence between Lakes Huron and Michigan. Laid in 1953, the twin pipelines have become a target of environmentalists, native tribes, tourism-related businesses and other critics who say it’s ripe for a spill that could do catastrophic damage to the lakes and the regional economy.

While insisting they’re in sound condition, Enbridge reached an agreement with Snyder’s administration in October to decommission the pipes 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 — as did fellow Democrat Dana Nessel, who won the race for attorney general. Both take office in January and have said the Snyder administration should not steamroll the plan to enactment in the meantime.

A spokeswoman for Nessel said she was “deeply concerned and troubled by the hasty legislative rush-to-judgment efforts to push through a proposal that has not been properly vetted, that handcuffs Governor-elect Whitmer and Attorney General-elect Nessel before they even take office, and will have negative repercussions on the state of Michigan and its residents for generations.”

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 owner of the tunnel, with responsibility for overseeing construction and managing its operations while leasing it to Enbridge and other potential users, such as electric cable companies. Snyder’s office is also requesting $4.5 million for startup administrative costs and radar to monitor wave heights in the straits.

The seven-member bridge authority, whose sole responsibility since its creation 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 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 authority’s Democratic chairman, Patrick “Shorty” Gleason, signaled that 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.

Opponents hope concerns about altering the bridge agency’s mission so significantly — raised even by people who don’t necessarily oppose the tunnel — will persuade the panel to delay a decision.

Creagh said the bridge authority was the logical choice to oversee the tunnel.