Nov. 28–LANSING — A lame-duck legislative move to complete a deal with Enbridge to build a tunnel around the Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac drew almost universal howls of protest at a Senate committee hearing Wednesday.
The bill that would shift authority over a replacement pipeline and tunnel to the Mackinac Bridge Authority passed the Government Operations Committee on a 3-2 party line vote, with Republicans supporting it and Democrats opposed, despite the protests and after less than one hour of testimony. It is expected to be taken up by the full Senate later this week.
The move means that a solution to the Line 5 issue would happen before Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer is sworn in on Jan. 1. The East Lansing Democrat favors shutting down the pipeline altogether.
But that would be disastrous for the Upper Peninsula, said Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, who sponsored the bill.
“There are those who believe that Line 5 should be shut off and that would be devastating for my district,” he said. “People would be paying $6 to $7 per gallon for propane and they can’t sustain that.”
Growing fears of a catastrophic oil spill in the Straits of Mackinac have resulted in widespread calls to shut down the 65-year-old Enbridge pipeline moving oil through the environmentally sensitive straits separating Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas.
Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who leaves office Dec. 31, struck a tunnel agreement in October with the Canadian oil transport giant. Under the plan, the company would pay to build a $350-million tunnel beneath the straits that would encase a replacement pipeline to prevent a spill and allow the existing line to be decommissioned. The state is also expected to kick in $4.5 million in infrastructure costs for the tunnel.
Snyder wants the tunnel overseen and owned by the Mackinac Bridge Authority — a move critics say is intended to bypass environmental approvals and accelerate required land condemnation.
And that shift in authority is what had people testifying Wednesday so upset.
Bill Gnodtke, former chairman of the bridge authority, bristled when he was told he only had two minutes to make his case.
“I can’t believe the Mackinac Bridge Authority is being treated this way,” he said. “There is plenty of time to draft a bill giving this tunnel to a tunnel authority and letting the Mackinac Bridge Authority provide the service that they’ve been doing all along.”
Dennis Cawthorne, a resident and business owner on Mackinac Island, said the proposal was a “perversion of the purpose” of the Bridge Authority. “Rarely have I seen such united objections to using the Bridge Authority like this.”
He said a separate authority should be created to oversee the tunnel. But if that didn’t happen, he suggested amendments to the bill that would protect the Bridge Authority from liability if there is a spill and a lawsuit is filed; making Enbridge make payments in lieu of taxes to the state that would equal half the value of the pipeline and tunnel, and require the Authority to apply for the same type of environmental permits that a private company would have to get if it had authority over the pipeline.
Sen. Morris Hood, D-Detroit, voted against the proposal and said he couldn’t believe that the state was seriously considering putting an authority in charge of such a crucial piece of infrastructure.
“This authority would be in charge of the pipeline without a lot of knowledge about pipelines,” he said.
Casperson noted: “You can make the same argument about the bridge.”
That prompted Hood to respond: “But there’s a big difference between something happening to the bridge and something happening to the pipeline.”
The bill — SB 1197 — is expected to be taken up by the full Senate as soon as Thursday.
Contact Kathleen Gray: 313-223-4430, email@example.com or on Twitter @michpoligal
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