Michigan approves Great Lakes oil pipeline tunnel permits

FILE - This July 19, 2002, file photo, shows the Mackinac Bridge that spans the Straits of Mackinac from Mackinaw City, Mich. Michigan's environmental agency said Friday, Jan. 29, 2021, it had approved construction of an underground tunnel to house a replacement for a controversial oil pipeline in a channel linking two of the Great Lakes. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)
FILE - This July 19, 2002, file photo, shows the Mackinac Bridge that spans the Straits of Mackinac from Mackinaw City, Mich. Michigan's environmental agency said Friday, Jan. 29, 2021, it had approved construction of an underground tunnel to house a replacement for a controversial oil pipeline in a channel linking two of the Great Lakes. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File) (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – Michigan's environmental agency said Friday it has approved construction of an underground tunnel to house a replacement for a controversial oil pipeline in a channel linking two of the Great Lakes.

The decision, a victory for Enbridge Inc., comes as the Canadian company resists Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's demand to shut down its 68-year-old line in the Straits of Mackinac.

Enbridge disputes her claim — echoed by environmentalists and native tribes — that the pipeline segment crossing the 4-mile-wide (6.4-kilometer-wide) waterway is unsafe. But Enbridge had earlier sought to ease public concern by striking a deal with Whitmer's predecessor, Republican Rick Snyder, in 2018 to run a new pipe through a tunnel to be drilled beneath the straits connecting Lake Huron and Lake Michigan.

The project requires permits from the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Liesl Clark, director of the Michigan agency and a Whitmer appointee, said the company's application satisfied state legal requirements.

“We have issued permits designed to ensure that if a tunnel is constructed, it will be in strict compliance with relevant statutes and adhere to stringent protections against impacts to the Great Lakes,” Clark said.

Enbridge has pledged to cover all costs of the $500 million project, which it says will be completed by 2024.

The tunnel “will make a safe pipeline even safer,” spokesman Ryan Duffy said, describing the permit approval as “an important milestone” for a project “virtually eliminating the potential for any release from Line 5 into the straits.”

Environmental groups and tribes fighting to decommission Enbridge's Line 5, which transports oil and natural gas liquids used in propane between Superior, Wisconsin, and Sarnia, Ontario, sharply criticized approval of permits for the tunnel. They say it would pollute waters, harm fish and damage shoreline wetlands while boosting use of fossil fuels that promote global warming, which Whitmer and President Joe Biden have pledged to fight.