The Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority has approved agreements for a proposed tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac. Canadian company Enbridge Energy plans to build the tunnel to house the replacement section for its controversial Line 5 oil and natural gas twin pipelines, which currently sit on the bottom of the Straits. The tunnel would also be available for use by other utilities, like electric companies.
The agreements were approved at the panel's first meeting on Wednesday in St. Ignace, just one week after Governor Rick Snyder signed a lame-duck bill creating the three-person panel.
The meeting drew a crowd of more than 200 and included public comment that lasted for more than two hours. 51 people spoke, with nearly equal numbers for and against the tunnel agreements. Supporters included a large union contingent and a significant number of local Enbridge employees. They spoke about their jobs and Michigan's economy, saying that pipelines are the safest way to transport oil and that a pipeline inside a tunnel would be even safer.
Critics say the tunnel plan has been hastily pushed through a lame-duck session of the Legislature and that there has not been nearly enough time for the panel or the public to review the agreements. The newest panel member, Mike Nystrom, was appointed just three days before the meeting — which wrapped up a public comment period that lasted only five days.
Environmental groups have called the public comment process for the tunnel a "sham." The panel was required to approve the tunnel agreements if they met criteria in the bill signed by Governor Snyder last week.
Mike Ripley spoke on behalf of the Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority, which coordinates five tribes with treaty fishing rights in the Straits of Mackinac.
"We debated on whether to even come today to give legitimacy to this," he said. "We don't think this is a legitimate board, and we're very concerned about the undemocratic process in the last month that's gone on in the lame duck Legislature in Michigan."
Ryan Duffy is a spokesperson for Enbridge, and when asked about the speed of the approval process, he said that plans for the tunnel go all the way back to 2014.
"There have been advisory boards, panels, lots of discussions, lots of meetings on this issue," he said. "Now the governor's been committed to trying to resolve it before he leaves office and get to a solution, and we feel like that's a good thing."
Proponents of the tunnel say that it makes the Straits even safer from oil spills, but its detractors are concerned about more than spills.
Frank Hawthorne is a Petoskey resident, and thinks oil transport infrastructure doesn't make sense in the context of climate change.
"We know we need to soon be transitioning away from fossil fuels and towards cleaner alternatives," he said. "How then, is an expensive Straits tunnel, which is likely going to cost much more and take far longer to build than estimated, how is that sending anyone the message that Michigan is a forward-thinking and acting leader in responding to the challenges of the future?"
Before adjourning, the panel set their next meeting date for Monday, April 15.
Editor's note: Enbridge Energy is one of Michigan Radio's corporate sponsors.