A Tunnel for Line 5? – That Would be a Big Mistake

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In an end-run around the public participation process they established, Governor Rick Snyder and Enbridge, Inc., the owner and operator of Line 5, are exploring the possibility of building a $500 million tunnel to replace the stretch of 65 year-old Line 5 pipeline that runs under the Straits of Mackinac. 

While a tunnel, properly designed and engineered, may be able to prevent harm in the event of a pipeline breach under Lake Michigan, there are compelling reasons why a tunnel should not be built.

First, the five-mile segment of a tunnel running under the Straits of Mackinac represents less than 1 percent of Line 5’s total length of 645 miles.  Long segments of this aging infrastructure run parallel to the Lake Michigan coast in the Upper Peninsula, crossing 400 rivers and streams that are tributary to Lake Michigan and numerous other water bodies.  Records from the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration indicate that in the last 50 years, there have been at least 29 spills along the length of Line 5 outside of the Straits, resulting in the release of over 1 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids.

The threats to our freshwater lakes and streams will escalate over time as the other 640 miles of Line 5 age and degrade.

Second, aside from the fact that Line 5 crosses Michigan largely to serve markets outside our state, a tunnel for Line 5 is a fundamentally unsound investment – one that is unneeded, economically imprudent, and may soon be functionally obsolete.

Major new pipeline infrastructure investments assume the continued demand for transportation fuels.  But our fossil fuel-based economy is in transition and will be completely transformed within the coming decades.

Recent petroleum sector forecasts by firms specializing in energy trends like Bloomberg, Navigant, and Goldman Sachs, predict that the transition to electric vehicles will accelerate quickly with a corresponding, precipitous drop in the demand for transportation fuels. 

The world’s major auto manufacturers are validating these predictions.   General Motors, VW, Volvo, and others are making clear that petroleum-free electric drivetrains will dominate their future manufacturing investments and that future product offerings will not use transportation fuels.

At the same time, sovereign nations are intent on extinguishing demand for petroleum.  England, France, Norway, Netherlands, Slovenia, India and China have announced their intentions to ban future sales and, in some cases, the use of vehicles with internal combustion engines.  Ireland has gone even further, announcing that it will divest its sovereign interest in all oil, gas and coal.

And while Enbridge boasts that it transports 63 percent of all Canadian oil to the United States, Big Oil sees the writing on the wall.  Seven international oil companies – Exxon Mobil, Conoco Phillips, Statoil, Koch Industries, Marathon, Imperial Oil and Royal Dutch Shell – will not need Enbridge’s future pipeline services as they have announced that they are writing off tar sand assets in Alberta.

The confluence of these trends will result in demand for transportation fuels declining precipitously, rendering a Line 5 tunnel project a costly albatross.

Third, climate change is the elephant in the room.  Continued investment in fossil fuel infrastructure is fundamentally at odds with the global consensus on the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  The findings of our National Climate Assessment are unambiguous – decarbonization of the global economy is an imperative, entailing a “fundamental transformation of the global energy system” to one that is no longer dependent on fossil fuels.  As the need to address climate change becomes more acute, new pipelines proposals will be met with the scrutiny they deserve.

Finally, we should all be able to agree that there are exceptional places and natural features that are deserving of special protections.  Just as we would not allow a foreign corporation to build a tunnel under the Grand Canyon, the Great Lakes should be off limits to fossil fuel infrastructure.

Our Great Lakes are a globally-unique natural resource, the largest interconnected freshwater system in the world, containing 84 percent of all surface water in North America.  Recognizing that certain natural resource endowments are invaluable and irreplaceable gifts of nature, both state and federal law already prohibit all oil and gas development, even if done laterally from inland areas. 

Skip Pruss, FLOW Chair

Building a tunnel to perpetuate Line 5 makes little economic or environmental sense.  The decisions we make about how to use and protect our freshwater seas will ultimately be judged on whether they do or do not protect the ecological, social, cultural, and economic interests of future generations.

Simply put, our Great Lakes merit extraordinary protection, and their bottomlands must be off limits to oil and gas pipelines.


One comment on “A Tunnel for Line 5? – That Would be a Big Mistake

  1. Mike Binsfeld on

    Skip,
    Thank you for highlighting the risks of the aging pipeline along it’s entire length. Sometimes I feel there is too much focus on the Straits, which is just 5 miles out of hundreds.

    Questions: 1. How much is the State of Michigan paid annually for allowing Canadian oil to travel through our state via Line 5? 2. Who would fund the proposed $500M cost of the tunnel under the Straits?

    Reply

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