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Enbridge’s 1,038-kilometre pipeline is a crucial petroleum conduit for Ontario and Quebec.Dale G. Young/The Associated Press

The Canadian operator of the Line 5 pipeline is urging Joe Biden’s administration to embrace its proposal to reroute a controversial Great Lakes crossing deep underground as an example of U.S. “Build Back Better” infrastructure projects.

Calgary-based-Enbridge’s 1,038-kilometre pipeline is a crucial petroleum conduit for Ontario and Quebec that carries Alberta and Saskatchewan petroleum through Great Lakes states before re-entering Canada at Sarnia, Ont.

Its future is unclear after Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer ordered the pipeline shut down over fears of an oil spill where it crosses the Straits of Mackinac waterway in northern Michigan.

Planning for Canada-U.S. treaty talks on Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline well under way, Ottawa says

Canada and the United States are in negotiations over the matter after Ottawa invoked a 1977 bilateral treaty that was designed to ensure the uninterrupted transmission of petroleum between the two countries.

Enbridge, meanwhile, is still awaiting regulatory approval for a workaround that it says would further insulate the Great Lakes from a potential spill. Right now, Line 5 splits into two pipelines that enter the Straits of Mackinac and run along the seabed from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the Lower Peninsula where they reunite into one line.

The company is proposing to build a US$500-million tunnel that would run deep under the Straits of Mackinac – as much as 100 feet below – as an alternative to the current route. It would bore through the rock under the waterway in what company advertising says would “virtually eliminate the chance of a pipeline incident in the Straits.”

Colin Gruending, an executive vice-president at Enbridge, argued that the project fits the Biden administration’s “Build Back Better” priorities. “The tunnel is a job creator, it protects the environment and it secures the economic security for the entire region. This fits right into the criteria of the current U.S. administration.”

Mr. Biden’s spending agenda, styled as “Building Back Better” after the economic toll taken by the COVID-19 pandemic, includes a massive infrastructure plan, but the energy component is not focused on fossil fuels.

Mr. Gruending said the company finds it surprising that the Michigan government won’t work with Enbridge to move ahead on the tunnel project. “We should be focused on partnering on building the tunnel as reasonably and expeditiously as possible,” Mr. Gruending said.

“The pipeline will continue to be safe until we get the tunnel built but the sooner the state starts working with us to permit and construct the new tunnel the better, and should be everyone’s priority.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last June announced it had opted to conduct a more extensive review of the tunnel project, a decision that could add years to the process.

The Michigan Governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Enbridge’s statements but a spokeswoman for Michigan Attorney-General Dana Nessel on Tuesday rejected the tunnel as a viable solution.

“We remain focused on the continuing threat presented by the existing pipelines in the water,” Lynsey Mukomel said in a statement.

“We cannot afford to wait for a tunnel that will not be built for several years, if at all.”

A University of Michigan computer-modelling study in 2016 concluded that more than 1,120 kilometres in Lake Huron and Lake Michigan would be vulnerable to oil spills if the pipelines beneath the Straits of Mackinac were to rupture.

While Michigan remains intent on shutting down Line 5, the White House on Tuesday said it is not contemplating shutting down Line 5 as it engages in talks with Canada.

“We expect that both the U.S. and Canada will engage constructively in those negotiations,” White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters.

She said those discussions should not be viewed as an indicator that the U.S. government was considering shutting down the pipeline.

“That is something that we’re not going to do,” she said.

Environmental critics say the Line 5 tunnel project in no way qualifies as a 21st-century infrastructure project of the kind envisioned by the Biden administration.

“When the world’s leading climate scientists are saying we have to rapidly decarbonize the global economy in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change it makes no sense to spend any time building a tunnel to transport more climate change-inducing fossil fuels,” said Sean McBrearty, the Michigan legislative and policy director with environmental group Clean Water Action.

Mr. McBrearty estimated that as things stand, the tunnel project is now seven to 10 years from completion.

With reports from Reuters

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