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Whitmer, Nessel clash with Republican state lawmakers over fate of Enbridge tunnel

A diver inspects Enbridge's Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac for a possible dent.
Enbridge inspection video shared with the state of Michigan
A diver inspects Enbridge's Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac for a possible dent.

During his final days in office, former Governor Rick Snyder signed legislation that created the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority. Its purpose? To oversee construction of a tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac that would encase new oil and gas pipelines to replace Enbridge's aging Line 5.

But Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel ran — and won — while promising to shut Line 5 down permanently. Now they’re moving tokeep that promise, setting up a showdown with the Republican lawmakers who control Michigan’s legislature. 

On Thursday, Nessel issued an opinion saying the law passed during last year's lame duck session is unconstitutional. Governor Whitmerfollowed up shortly after by issuing an executive order which halted any further efforts to put the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority law into action. 

Jim Malewitz has been covering Line 5 for Bridge Magazine. He joined us to answer some key questions about the ongoing debate.

Click here to see Enbridge's full response to Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel's opinion and Governor Whitmer's executive order.

What are the main arguments for and against the proposed tunnel?

On the pro-tunnel side, Malewitz says, are Michigan Republicans and Enbridge. They say that constructing the tunnel is the "best way to protect the Great Lakes and to make sure that the pipeline is still sending fuel to the Upper Peninsula, and throughout Enbridge’s regional pipeline infrastructure.”

On the other side, he says, are Democrats and environmental activists. They want to see the pipeline shut down, and to stop the transport of oil through the Straits altogether.

Why did the Michigan Legislature create the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority (MSCA)?

Malewitz says lawmakers originally intended for the pre-existing Mackinac Bridge Authority to oversee construction of the tunnel, but members of that authority objected. The bill was revised to move the duties related to the tunnel's construction away from the Mackinac Bridge Authority and to the newly-created Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority.  

What did Attorney General Nessel and Governor Whitmer do?

In her opinion, Attorney General Nessel argued that the title of the bill did not match its actual content. She wrote that put the law into conflict with the title-object provision of the Michigan Constitution.

"[Nessel] said that the reason that there was this title-object clause in the Constitution was to make sure that lawmakers knew what they were voting for when they were voting for it,” explained Malewitz. 

Less than an hour after the attorney general issued that opinion, Governor Whitmer ordered all state agencies to stop working on plans related to the construction of the tunnel.

What comes next?

Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) told Malewitz that Nessel's opinion was "shameful." Shirkey said that the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority could potentially sue the Whitmer administration in attempt to defend itself and tunnel’s construction.

Mike Nystrom, the former head of the MSCA, told Malewitz that he didn't think the organization could take legal action because Whitmer's order dissolved it as an entity. 

“It seems like the ball is probably in Enbridge’s court to try to restart something, whether that’s negotiation with Governor Whitmer or it’s some sort of legal action,” said Malewitz. 

Editor: Enbridge Energy is one of Michigan Radio's corporate sponsors. 

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Isabella Isaacs-Thomas.

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