US Army reviewing plans for oil pipeline tunnel under Michigan's Great Lakes

Matthew Donnellon

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Enbridge Energy’s plan to put a tunnel under the Great Lakes has hit a delay.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided to forego a simple examination and instead decided to conduct a full environmental impact statement, a significantly more complex process which will delay the tunnel for much longer, possibly for months, “I have concluded that an EIS is the most appropriate level of review because of the potential for impacts significantly affecting the quality of the human environment,” said Jaime A. Pinkham, acting assistant secretary of the Army for civil works.”

Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) are one of the most rigorous assessments the government does, and are not undertaken lightly, “An EIS is a supporting document that is the most thorough and comprehensive level of National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) documentation used to assist in making a decision. It is a report that outlines the predicted environmental effects of a particular action or project in which the federal government is involved, seeks to highlight the significant environmental ramifications of a project, provides alternative actions, and is regulated under Section 102(2) (C) of the NEPA.”

The EIS is not mandatory. The Army Corps of Engineers decides if they are needed on a case per case basis. The two main factors that go into determining whether or not an EIS is warranted is locality and severity, essentially, where it is and how badly the environment could be damaged.

It is easy to understand why the Army Corps of Engineers would want the impact statement. The tunnel would be going under the Great Lakes, which holds a massive fraction of the country’s freshwater. Should an ecological disaster occur, such as a pipeline leaking, the results could be disastrous.

What goes into an Environmental Impact Statement?

The following factors are considered during one of these assessments: the environmental impact of the action, possible adverse effects, alternatives to the actions, and short-term use versus long-term productivity.

Originally, Enbridge stated that they wished to finish the tunnel by 2024, but with the environmental impact statement, that time table might be changing, according Ryan Duffy, a Enbridge spokesman, ““Placing a pipeline in a new Great Lakes tunnel will provide extra layers of safety and environmental protection and make what is currently a safe pipeline even safer, while creating Michigan jobs and securing the needed energy for consumers in Michigan and the region.”

The tunnel is part of a larger struggle between Enbridge Energy and the State of Michigan. In 2018, Enbridge agreed to build a tunnel to house the Line 5, an oil pipeline running across the Straits of Mackinac. There has been significant pressure by environmentalists, and Native American groups to have the line shut down. Governor Whitmer recently ordered it shut down, and threatened to seize profits.

Many believe that creating the tunnel could have even bigger environmental impact than the pipeline itself, and welcome the Army taking another look, “We are encouraged to see that the Army Corps of Engineers heeded our call to undertake a more rigorous analysis" of the project, said Whitney Gravelle, chairwoman of the Bay Mills Indian Community. The tribe, which has treaty-guaranteed fishing rights in the straits, “is very concerned that the pipeline threatens our way of life,” she said.

It looks like the state will be going into another showdown with Enbridge.

Updates to come.

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Matthew Donnellon is a writer, artist, and sit down comedian. He is the author of The Curious Case of Emma Lee and Other Stories

Detroit, MI
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