Up to $500M to replace Enbridge twin pipelines connecting Great Lakes

The twin pipelines in Enbridge's Line 5 will be replaced over the next seven to 10 years, after the company reached a deal with Mich. Gov. Rick Snyder's administration.

Michigan and Enbridge have reached an agreement to install a new pipe that runs through a tunnel

In this June 8, 2017 file photo, fresh nuts, bolts and fittings are ready to be added to the east leg of the pipeline near St. Ignace, Mich., as Canadian oil transport company Enbridge prepares to test the east and west sides of the Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac. (Dale G Young/The Detroit News via AP)

A new pipe is replacing a pair of 65-year-old crude oil pipes connecting two of the Great Lakes after Mich. Gov. Rick Synder's administration and Enbridge reached a deal.

This new pipe will run through a tunnel below the lake bed, according to officials.

The project is expected to take seven to 10 years to complete, costing anywhere from $350 million to $500 million — paid for by Enbridge, a company based in Calgary.

Meanwhile, about 87 million litres (23 million gallons) of oil and natural gas liquids used to make propane would move through the twin lines at the bottom of the straits.

Pipeline condition

These twin lines are part of Enbridge's Line 5, a system that spans 1,038 kilometres from Superior, Wis. to Sarnia, Ont.

Both parties have described the agreement as a win-win, as critics have considered the twin lines to be a time bomb that under a worst-case spill scenario, could negatively impact a large expanse of lakes and shorelines.

The twin lines are in between two Great Lakes. (Enbridge)

Enbridge has been on the defensive in recent years about the condition of the pipelines, following discoveries of dozens of spots where the protective coating has worn off. In addition, there was damage done from a ship anchor strike last April.

"This answers the demand we've heard from the public to protect the Great Lakes and at the same time provide some consistent reliability for energy," said Keith Creagh, director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

The spokesperson for Enbridge, Ryan Duffy, said the company "has operated Line 5 safely and reliably for decades," although Synder and other officials have previously accused them of being less than forthcoming.

 "We believe this agreement makes a safe pipeline even safer," Duffy said.

'Sarnia's going to rejoice'

Dan McTeague, senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy, called the Michigan approval good news for Sarnia, the heart of Canada's petrochemical industry.

"Sarnia's going to rejoice from this, as will the rest of us," he said, adding that if he were younger, he'd go into the trades and head to the city for work. "It means stable prices for fuel."

In addition to the economic benefit for Sarnia, McTeague said Line 5 is a critical component of Ontario's energy industry, explaining that it is the main source of light oil to Sarnia's three refineries.

"It's a fairly significant piece of pipeline — without it, I would estimate that well over two-thirds of all gasoline [in Ontario and Quebec] would simply disappear," he said.

Campaign issue

This deal may become a contentious topic during the election as Synder's term is winding down.

Democratic nominee Gretchen Whitmer has pledged to shut down Line 5 if she's elected as governor in November. Her Republican opponent, state Attorney General Bill Schuette, has endorsed the tunnel option.

On another note, environmental groups have been saying that the only safe course is to reroute the oil away from the straits.

"Michigan gets nothing in this deal except a continued unacceptable risk to our water, while Enbridge continues to rake in massive profits and use our state as a shortcut for Canadian oil," Sean McBrearty of Clean Water Action said during a Lansing, Mich. rally this week.

Vanessa Gray, an environmental and Anishinaabe activist from Aamjiwnaang First Nation, located near Sarnia, also called the pipeline a risk to fresh water. 

"I think that it's in everyone's best interest that this doesn't go through," she said. "We have to protect [our drinking water.]

Gray added that she believes Michigan doesn't have the legitimate authority to allow construction, calling the Great Lakes unceded territory.

It's not clear whether the next administration would have legal authority to undo the agreement to replace the pipes.

Michigan owns the straits bottomlands and granted Enbridge an easement when the pipes were placed in 1953. Creagh said revoking it would trigger a lengthy court battle.

U.S. officials say Enbridge violated 24 regulations in connection with the 2010 spill that sent billions of litres of oil into the waters of southwestern Michigan. (Paul Sancya/Associated Press)

Agreement details

The agreement includes provisions intended to reduce the likelihood of leaks from existing pipes while the tunnel is built. They also aim to ensure close collaboration between Enbridge and Michigan after the new line is operational, officials said.

Some of those collaborations include underwater inspections to detect potential leaks and evaluation of pipe coating. 

A deal also calls for negotiating a public-private partnership between Enbridge and the Mackinac Bridge Authority, a state agency that oversees the suspension bridge over the straits between Michigan's upper and lower peninsulas near the underwater pipes.

The authority would help Enbridge get government permits for the tunnel and new pipeline. They would also assume ownership of the tunnel when it's complete.

Enbridge will be leasing the tunnel for the pipeline. 

with files from CBC Windsor's Jonathan Pinto


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?