By Barbara Stamiris
Red herring: “Something that distracts attention from the real issue.”
The real issue: To keep Line 5 earning $1.76 million a day — what Enbridge said the July 2020 shutdown in the Straits of Mackinac was costing them.
Enbridge can earn billions operating Line 5 while Michigan agencies, courts and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spend years deliberating about a tunnel which may never be built. Just “proposing” a tunnel works for Enbridge.
Michigan only uses about 7 percent of Line 5’s oil. Even Enbridge has other options. Alberta tar sands oil enters the U.S. at Minnesota in Line 3. At the West end of the Upper Peninsula, Line 3 branches into Line 5 and Line 6. If Line 5, which carries light crude through Michigan, was shutdown, Canadian oil could still reach Sarnia via Line 6 around the lakes. This Wisconsin route would not only spare the Great Lakes but would be far less expensive than a Straits tunnel, even if adjustments were needed.
Perhaps that’s why there is no mention of a tunnel in Enbridge’s 2020 10K Report to the Securities & Exchange Commission. The Line 3 Replacement Project and Southern Access Expansion are budgeted under “Growth Projects & Commercially Secured Projects,” but Line 5 is shown only as an “asset in operation.” Neither the 4-mile tunnel segment nor the 641 land miles of the 68-year-old pipeline are funded or cited for replacement.
Escape clauses in former Gov. Rick Snyder’s 2018 tunnel agreement allow Enbridge to walk away without penalty. Given today’s downturn in oil prices, the 99-year-oil tunnel commitment has become a risky investment. In June, Enbridge stock was downgraded by Morningstar “due to long term carbon emissions concerns.” Fossil fuel economics decline worldwide as awareness of climate change grows. Michigan, like many government entities and corporations, seeks to be carbon neutral by 2050.
Last November, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered that Line 5 be shut down in May because it presents an “unacceptable risk” to the Great Lakes. But Enbridge is suing to keep Line 5 operating until its replacement in the tunnel is ready, which could take a decade. Enbridge continues to operate Line 5 despite the legal shutdown order. Enbridge spends millions advertising, lobbying and even giving free whitefish to people in Michigan in their effort to convince us that we are the ones in need of Line 5.
The decision to build a tunnel — while the old line operates above it — should not be up to Enbridge alone. However, the time and money spent to decide about this phantom tunnel could be better spent on real needs. If the tunnel proposal is just a “red herring,” it is a very expensive one — for everyone except Enbridge.
About the author: Barbara Stamiris, of Traverse City, is a long-time environmental activist. She testified before Congress in 1983 about safety issues at the nuclear plant in Midland, Michigan. She was named Volunteer Environmentalist of the Year in 2019 by the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council.