On Oct. 3, the Michigan state government and Enbridge, a Canadian energy transportation company, announced a plan to replace the twin Line 5 oil pipelines that run through the Straits of Mackinac, a major waterway that connects Lakes Michigan and Huron. The agreement calls for the decommissioning of the existing pipeline after a new one is built in a tunnel below the Straits.

The Line 5 pipelines are 645 miles long, transporting up to 540,000 barrels of crude oil and natural gas per day. The new tunnel would not change the volume of oil transported daily.

The project is set to take seven to 10 years to complete and cost $350 million to $500 million. Enbridge will provide all of the funding and will continue to pay for the operation and maintenance of the tunnel for up to 99 years.

“This common-sense solution offers the greatest possible safeguards to Michigan’s waters while maintaining critical connections to ensure Michigan residents have the energy resources they need,” Gov. Rick Snyder wrote in a press release. “The historic agreement will result in eliminating nearly every risk of an oil leak in the Straits and provide added protections to the Great Lakes. It also will allow for multiple utilities to be housed and protected, better connecting our peninsulas, improving energy security and supporting economic development. The taxpayers of Michigan will benefit greatly from this project but won’t have to pay for it.”

According to the press release, the agreement will demand Enbridge follow certain safety measures to reduce risk during construction. The measures include shutting down the pipelines when waves are high, providing a new radar system, maintaining $1.8 billion in available funds in case of an oil spill and installing cameras in the Straits to prohibit ships from dropping their anchors atop a pipeline.

Both Enbridge and Snyder’s administration claim the deal is an environmental victory because it decommissions the existing controversial Line 5 pipelines and expands safety measures for the new tunnel. However, critics are wary of the environmental implications of constructing a tunnel in the Straits of Mackinac and concerned about the risk of an oil spill in the process.

The Straits’ pivotal location is a main cause of concern. A spill could potentially affect two of the five Great Lakes, the largest group of lakes on Earth by area. The Great Lakes collectively house over 20 percent of the global supply of surface fresh water.

University of Michigan researcher Dave Schwab modeled how a potential oil spill in the Straits of Mackinac would impact the Great Lakes ecology, wildlife and coasts.

“I believe an oil spill from Line 5 in the Straits could cause severe environmental economic and cultural damage over a wide area because of the unique water flow conditions in the Straits,” Schwab said. 

Schwab foresees at least three sets of environmental implications for the construction of the tunnel, beyond the risk of an oil spill: the immediate effects of the drilling on the north and south shores of the Straits, potential geological impact on the subsurface in the Straits and long-term impact to the atmosphere from the continued use of any fossil fuels, which Line 5 transports.

Schwab said the tunnel would eventually be an improvement on the existing pipelines, but nonetheless extends the lifetime of oil transport through the Great Lakes.

“The tunnel project would eventually result in a lower likelihood of an oil spill from the Line 5 pipeline, but it would prolong the period of risk for a spill from the current pipeline until the tunnel was approved, constructed and made operational, which could easily take more than 10 years,” Schwab said.

LSA junior Cameron Leitz, president of the Program in the Environment Club, is also concerned about the construction of the project, fearing it could result in an oil spill.

“I’m concerned because this plan could create an oil spill in the Great Lakes,” Leitz said. “The Great Lakes are pristine bodies of water that are used for recreation and drinking water. Freshwater is becoming more scarce and it is becoming increasingly important to protect our freshwater resources.”

Both Leitz and Schwab believe Line 5 should be shut down permanently.

“I personally don’t believe that the benefits Line 5 provides to the people of Michigan are anywhere near sufficient to justify the risk of an oil spill from the pipeline,” Schwab said.

The agreement between Snyder’s administration and Enbridge is contentious, with midterm elections on the horizon. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer has said she will shut down Line 5 if elected, while Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette has endorsed Snyder’s plan.

Leitz heavily considers the environmental policy of candidates when voting.

“Climate change and other environmental problems are some of the most important problems facing the world, so I heavily consider each candidates’ stance on environmental policy,” Leitz said. “Individual actions are great for helping to solve climate change, but changing environmental policy is the only way to have a bigger impact on solving these problems.”

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