Whitmer looks beyond Line 5 with new task force as Enbridge files suit

Mackinac Bridge | Susan J. Demas

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has created a state task force to study other ways of delivering propane to Upper Peninsula residents without Line 5 after talks soured with Enbridge and a court battle looms.

The Canadian oil company on Thursday announced plans to sue the state of Michigan amid a series of sharp-tongued statements.

Enbridge announces lawsuit, Nessel responds: ‘We’ll see you in court’

On Friday, Whitmer signed an executive order creating a new UP Energy Task Force, as Enbridge told reporters in a statement that the governor’s two-year timeline to shut down Line 5 was unreasonable.

Enbridge had pledged to finish its utility tunnel and shut down the pipeline by 2024, but the company said Whitmer demanded its completion in two years.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at the Mackinac Policy Conference, May 29, 2019 | Andrew Roth

Whitmer’s office said in a statement that Line 5 “poses an unacceptable threat to the Great Lakes” and Michigan’s way of life.

“Enbridge has a disappointing safety record in Michigan, and the dual pipelines that run through the Straits of Mackinac create an unacceptable risk of an oil spill by anchor strike or other means,” Whitmer said. “Such an event would be catastrophic for the Great Lakes and our economy, and would send energy costs skyrocketing for UP families.”

Whitmer said her task force will make recommendations to ensure that the Upper Peninsula’s energy needs are met.

Attorney General Dana Nessel issued a legal opinion that a 2018 law creating the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority (MSCA) is unconstitutional. Nessel’s opinion disbanded the MSCA, whose members had the authority to oversee Enbridge’s Mackinac Straits tunnel project.

Attorney General Dana Nessel
Dana Nessel after a House Judiciary Committee hearing, Feb. 19, 2019 | Ken Coleman

On Thursday, Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said that the company “walked away from the negotiating table,” and that it became clear Enbridge “is only interested in protecting its bottom line.”

Enbridge has since filed suit in the Michigan Court of Claims to ask a judge to challenge Nessel’s opinion.

The MSCA’s members were appointed to six-year terms by GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder and excluded Whitmer from involvement in Enbridge’s plan to bury a new oil pipeline in a utility tunnel 100 feet beneath the Great Lakes.

Enbridge also denied in a statement that profit is its primary concern. The company remains “willing to reach a solution that works for all Michiganders,” Enbridge said.

Enbridge Mackinaw Station, Mackinaw City | Susan J. Demas

“To the assertion that Enbridge is only concerned about the bottom line, we have committed to spend $500 million to replace the tunnel, $40 million of that alone in preparations this year as part of an accelerated plan that it is the swiftest way to replace the line.

“We have stayed at the table, but it is the Governor’s insistence on shutting down the line in 2 years — ahead of the 2024 tunnel completion —  and her not supporting this plan which forced us to seek the court ruling,” the statement continued.

Whitmer’s executive order, meanwhile, creates a task force of 13 members to be appointed by the governor within the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE).

The order states that the panel will submit a “propane plan” in two parts: the first part due on March 31, 2020, and the second portion in 2021.

Nessel praised Whitmer’s decision.

Straits of Mackinac State Harbor | Susan J. Demas

“Enbridge has made clear its primary focus is its bottom line,” she said in a Friday statement. “And while the governor and I work in tandem to decommission Line 5 as quickly as possible to protect our Great Lakes and the health and safety of our residents, her task force is a necessary step to ensure we meet the energy needs of all our state’s residents for generations to come.”

Michigan Environmental Council CEO and President Conan Smith said Whitmer’s order may be an opportunity for renewable energy to gain a foothold in the Upper Peninsula.

“The Upper Peninsula has some of the highest energy costs in the nation, but this can be remedied by investing in clean, renewable energy and energy efficiency programs,” Smith said. “For too long, residents of the UP have suffered from exorbitant energy rates with no real solutions to their problems.”

Michael Gerstein
Michael Gerstein covers the governor’s office, criminal justice and the environment. Before that, he wrote about state government and politics for the Detroit News, the Associated Press and MIRS News and won a Society of Professional Journalism award for open government reporting. He studied philosophy at Michigan State University, where he wrote for both The State News and Capital News Service. He began his journalism career freelancing for The Sturgis Journal, his hometown paper.

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