Achieving Results, Exceeding Expectations

Environmental Law

What is the Mackinac Bridge Authority (and what does it have to do with a pipeline)?

By Sue Sadler.

The Mackinac Bridge Authority is a seven-member Board that was established in the 1950s that provides oversight, legal and financial services to maintain the Mackinac Bridge. In October 2018, Governor Snyder appointed Mike Zimmer, a former Cabinet Director to the Executive Office of the Governor and Kirk Steudle, the Director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, as Board Members of the Mackinac Bridge Authority.

Almost simultaneously with the new appointments to the Bridge Authority, the Governor announced that an agreement had been reached between the State of Michigan and Enbridge Energy. The Tunnel Agreement culminates extended negotiations regarding the future of “Line 5” within the “Straits of Mackinac.” The Agreement allows Enbridge Energy to continue the use of Line 5 for the transport of light crude oil and natural gas fluids. The focus of the Agreement is on the 4.09 miles of parallel pipelines that lie below the Mackinac Straits, which are used to transport fluids within a much longer pipeline system operated by Enbridge.

The Agreement contemplates that in the future Enbridge will use a horizontal directional drilling machine to create a tunnel that will encase a single larger pipeline for future transport of light oils and natural gas liquids. The Agreement requires Enbridge to cover the cost of design and construction of the pipeline and then Enbridge will decommission the older Line 5 parallel pipelines. The cost of this project is projected to be $350 to $500 Million.

The potential catch in implementing the Tunnel Agreement brings us back to the Mackinac Bridge Authority. The Agreement requires Enbridge to enter into a public-private partnership with the Mackinac Bridge Authority. Upon completion of the Straits Tunnel, the Bridge Authority would assume ownership of the Straits Tunnel.  In the interim, the Authority would also provide Enbridge with necessary leases and other agreements to facilitate the construction and completion of the Straits Tunnel.

On November 8, 2018, the Mackinac Bridge Authority conducted an introductory and informational meeting regarding the Tunnel Agreement. Representatives from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and design consultants presented an overview of proposed tunnel and recently adopted safety measures to prevent spills in the Straits. Opponents of the Mackinac Bridge Authority accepting the Tunnel Agreement, and the delegation of control of Pipeline 5 to the Bridge Authority, were very vocal at the meeting.  The opponents contend the Bridge Authority is not capable or staffed to take on this expanded role. Certain Native American groups argued that the Tunnel Agreement is invalid for not considering certain rights of tribes to fish in the Straits.

In the interim, Senate Republicans have introduced legislation to expand the role of the Mackinac Bridge Authority, which would ultimately own and operate the Straits Tunnel to be constructed by Enbridge.

If the Bridge Authority rejects taking on this new role of ownership and oversight, many questions remain as to how this would impact the original Tunnel Agreement and whether this would allow Enbridge Energy to continue its transport of oils and gas through the older, lesser protective Line 5 pipelines.