Union allies urge Whitmer to back Line 5 tunnel

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Michigan Governor-elect Gretchen Whitmer and her Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist take questions from the media during a press conference at the Motor City Casino Hotel in Detroit  on Wednesday.

Lansing — Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer campaigned on a pledge to shut down the Enbridge oil pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac, but construction unions that backed her are now urging she support a pending state deal for a tunneled Line 5 replacement.

Term-limited Republican Gov. Rick Snyder in October announced that Enbridge has agreed to pay for construction of a shared “utility corridor” that would be drilled 100 feet into bedrock below the Straits. The project is expected to take seven to 10 years and cost $350 million to $500 million.

Unions see the tunnel construction proposal as a major job-creation opportunity for skilled trades workers but are increasingly skeptical Snyder will be able to complete the deal before leaving office. With five weeks left in Snyder's tenure, advocates expect Whitmer could play some role in deciding the fate of the construction project. 

“I think the governor-elect knows where the building trades stand,” said Pat Devlin, secretary treasurer of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council.

"I hope both sides just take a step back and look at all the moving pieces to this thing. There’s a lot of jobs and a lot of other stuff that’s going to be affected by the wrong decision here. We think that eliminating Line 5 just to eliminate Line 5 isn’t the answer.”

The construction union was one of the first labor organizations to endorse Whitmer’s campaign for governor. But she was also backed by environmental groups that have long called for the state to shut down Line 5, arguing the 65-year-old dual pipelines leave the Great Lakes susceptible to a massive oil spill. 

Devin called the tunnel option a "safer" alternative that would ensure continued delivery of propane used to heat homes in the Upper Peninsula. The construction project could create hundreds of jobs and stimulate the economy in northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, he said. 

A handful of other unions that supported Whitmer's campaign are also advocating for Snyder's tunnel project.

A diver inspects the Line 5 oil pipelines at the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac in a 2013 dive on behalf of the nonprofit National Wildlife Federation.

“If it does end up falling to her, we’ll be working closely with the new administration to make sure our voice is heard,” said Jonathan Byrd, legislative director for the Michigan Laborers’ District Council.

“But hopefully we can just get this done here in the next couple weeks so we can get to focus on fixing the roads and rebuilding our state’s infrastructure in other ways.”

With the end of the year fast approaching, the tunnel deal remains contingent on the Mackinac Bridge Authority's accepting oversight responsibilities. Michigan lawmakers are poised to consider legislation ensuring the Bridge Authority can do so, and Snyder is requesting $4.5 million in new state spending for related work at the Straits.

Bridge Authority Chairman Patrick "Shorty" Gleason, who recently retired from the Building and Construction Trades Council, has cautioned against rushing a deal. Ex-Chairman Bill Gnodtke is among former members opposing the plan to expand the Bridge Authority's role. 

Whitmer pledged to begin the process of shutting down the existing pipeline on the day she takes office by challenging Enbridge’s easement rights in the Straits of Mackinac.  A legal fight over the easement could take years to resolve, but Whitmer has argued that leaving the pipeline in the Great Lakes for up to a decade while the tunnel is planned and constructed would be "unacceptable." 

"Gov.-elect Whitmer has made her position on Enbridge Line 5 clear. She believes it poses a serious risk to the Great Lakes, to Michigan's economy and to our way of life,” said administration transition press secretary Clare Liening. “She is committed to protecting Michigan jobs and Michigan water and opposes actions that would impede her ability to do that.”

Asked specifically about the tunnel proposal, Liening said Whitmer’s transition team is “reviewing a range of issues surrounding Line 5” before she takes office in January.

Attorney General-elect Dana Nessel has also vowed legal action to shut down Line 5 and opposes any new state action on the pipeline before she is sworn in on Jan. 1, said transition spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney.

Nessel “is deeply concerned and troubled by the hasty legislative rush-to-judgment efforts to push through a proposal that has not been properly vetted, that handcuffs Gov.-elect Whitmer and Attorney General-elect Nessel before they even take office, and will have negative repercussions on the state of Michigan and its residents for generations,” Rossman-McKinney said.

While unions push the tunnel project, environmental groups are expecting Whitmer to make good on her promise to shut down Line 5, if that remains a viable option by the time she takes office.

“It’s a little hard to tell” if Whitmer could undo the tunnel deal if it is approved by the Legislature and Mackinac Bridge Authority, said Anne Woiwode, a leader with the Sierra Club’s Michigan Chapter. But "our experience in the past has been that new governors have been able to reverse decisions that have been made through a variety of means,”

Woiwode called the tunnel deal a "disaster waiting to happen" because it would not eliminate the larger threat of an oil spill in the Great Lakes or on land the pipeline also travels across. 

“We certainly will be encouraging Gov. Whitmer, when she’s in office, if this has moved ahead, to take whatever steps she can to block it," she said. 

Snyder and Enbridge officials contend the tunnel would eliminate nearly all risk of a major oil spill in the Great Lakes.

The deal requires Enbridge to take additional steps to reduce the risk of a spill during construction as it continues to operate Line 5, which carries up to 540,000 barrels a day of light crude oil and natural gas liquids through the Upper Peninsula and lower Michigan from Wisconsin to Ontario, Canada.

When the utility tunnel is completed, Enbridge would need to have staff on site capable of shutting down its pipeline within 15 minutes when waves reach a certain height. The company also agreed to set aside $1.8 billion to respond to any potential spill in the Straits, a figure identified in a worst-case analysis performed for the state by researchers at Michigan Technological University.

Devlin, with the Building Trades union, said he is worried the tunnel plans won't be finalized before Snyder leaves office. As a result, Whitmer and new legislative leaders should be at the negotiating table, and “the decision needs to be made by everybody," he said. “Whether we get there or not remains to be seen."

Tunnel construction could create roughly 500 short-term jobs, including carpentry, electrical and pipe fitting work, Devlin said. The massive boring machines that would be used to dig the tunnel would likely be built on site, he said. 

“It’s not just the project itself. It’s what that tunnel will do for the whole economy up there,” Devlin argued. 

But environmental groups contend an oil leak in the Straits would have a devastating impact on the local economy and businesses. In a study conducted for the state, researchers said a worst-case spill could affect more than 400 miles of shoreline in Michigan, Wisconsin and Canada. It could put 47 wildlife species and 60,000 acres of habitat at risk.

Infrastructure investment is important for Michigan, but other initiatives, like federal plans for a Soo Locks expansion and Whitmer's proposal to "fix the damn roads," could also create jobs for unions now pushing for the Straits tunnel, Woiwode said.

“I would encourage them to look at the big picture and focus on the things that are most important,” she said. “Bailing out a Canadian oil pipeline giant is certainly not the most important thing for us to invest in for ensuring there are jobs for the construction trades.”


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