Steelworkers, Ohio refinery up pressure to keep Line 5 open

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The United Steelworkers International union and workers from the Toledo Refining Company are mounting renewed opposition to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's planned closure of Enbridge's Line 5. 

The United Steelworkers has been advocating for Line 5's continued operation since 2019 but launched the "Future on the Line" campaign in February to increase the union's reach. 

Refinery workers plan to testify and gather at the Lansing Capitol Tuesday, the day before Whitmer's deadline for the closure of the oil pipeline through the Straits of Mackinac. They plan to line the Capitol lawn with more than 300 hardhats to represent the Steelworkers union jobs that would be lost at the Toledo refinery if the pipeline is closed. 

It's unlikely the pipeline will actually close by Wednesday as Enbridge and the state continue to meet for mediation over Whitmer's November revocation of the line's easement. Enbridge had sued in federal court over the attempted closure, arguing the pipeline is subject to federal regulators, not state. 

Tira Houston, a chief operator at Toledo Refining Company, speaks during a United Steelworkers video opposing the closure of Enbridge's Line 5 oil pipeline.

Whitmer's administration said Thursday the pipeline's continued operation after May 12 would be considered "unlawful" but declined to say what, if anything, the state would do to enforce its closure order.

Whitmer, a Democrat who had strong union support during her 2018 campaign for governor, stands "fully stands behind her decision," spokesman Bobby Leddy said. The oil pipeline in the straits is a "ticking time bomb" that poses great risk to the environment and economy, he said.

"The Great Lakes support over 1.3 million jobs that generate $82 billion in wages annually across the US, including 350,000 jobs in Michigan," Leddy said. "We cannot risk the devastating economic, environmental, and public health impacts of a catastrophic oil spill in the Great Lakes." 

Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, a Republican, visited the Toledo refinery's Local 912 with other Democratic and Republican leaders Thursday to "gather facts" in the hopes of starting a "constructive dialogue" with Whitmer, he told The Detroit News Friday. Husted said the DeWine administration planned to send additional communication to Whitmer in the coming days urging compromise on her promise to shutter the pipeline.

Husted was optimistic about the mediation between the state and Enbridge over the closure. 

"Right now, that pipeline is safe, but I respect the fact that they want to make it safer,” Husted said "We believe that this can be constructively resolved, and we’re trying to be a positive voice in raising the consequences of closure and facilitate an alternative to that."

United Steelworkers International has about 350 members in its Local 912 at the Toledo PBF facility, which processes light crude oil from Line 5. The refinery has about 600 contracted employees and 550 direct employees, each of whom supports about 12 other community jobs in the Ohio area, the company estimates. 

"We're asking that the state of Michigan, we're asking Gov. Whitmer, we're asking Attorney General Nessel to look at the big picture here, to work with us on a path forward," said Scott Hayes, health, safety, environmental and government affairs manager for Toledo Refining Company. "We want the same things. We want clean, affordable energy. But we also want it transmitted safely."

Union and refinery officials said a Line 5 shutdown would have a "ripple effect" that would drive up prices at gas stations, jet fuel at Detroit Metro Airport and propane in the Upper Peninsula. The effects would be felt not just in Ohio or Michigan, but throughout the Midwest and in Canada. 

"We receive crude down that line," the refinery's chief operator Tira Houston said in a 5-minute video outlining the risks to the refinery. "And if we do not get what we need from Line 5, we will no longer be able to survive."

Other unions have supported the pipeline's continued operation, including the Michigan Pipe Trades Association, Operating Engineers 324, Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council and Laborers International Union of North America, whose state branch has sponsored a pro-pipeline billboard along Interstate 69 for close to a year. 

LiUNA's general President Terry O'Sullivan said in a November letter to Whitmer that the governor's decision proved her "pro-worker rhetoric to be fake and phony." 

"Governor, actions speak far louder than words, and your decision here is a staggering betrayal that will ring in the ears of our members for years to come," O'Sullivan wrote. "Time and time again, we stood by your side when you needed us, but when we needed you the most, you stood instead with those who would take food off our tables."

But environmental groups in Michigan have said claims of economic disaster by unions and industry are greatly exaggerated. State officials have said Enbridge and the industries it supports have had ample time to prepare for a potential closure. 

"We do not agree with the notion that there will be major job losses," said Sean McBrearty, legislative and policy director for Clean Water Action. Refineries could receive oil and hydrocarbon from other sources and by other means of transportation, he argued. 

Regardless, the risks to the oil industry must be weighed against the risk to other industries threatened by a potential spill, McBrearty said. 

"It’s definitely an issue of importance, which is why we want to see Line 5 shut down," he said. "The impacts of a spill would be far greater than the economic impacts of holding Line 5 accountable.”

A 2018 Michigan State University study prepared for the Traverse City environmental group For Love of Water found that a 15-day closure of the straits due to a spill would halt "U.S. steel production and curtail production along steel-dependent value chains, including the automotive industry." The total economic impact on industry would be about $48.5 billion, according to the study.

A separate 2018 state study on the impact of a "worst-case oil spill" pegged the shipping sector loss at $42 million, but the MSU study said it only took into account "daily operation costs for the ships" and not the broader impacts on commodities. 

Enbridge is securing some of the final federal and state approvals for the construction of a more than $500 million utility tunnel beneath the Straits that would house a new segment of Line 5. 

The agreement to construct the tunnel was cemented under Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder after years of environmental concerns about the catastrophic effect of an oil spill from the 68-year-old pipeline.

Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel campaigned on promises to shutter the dual line and have been in court with Enbridge since 2019 in an attempt to overturn Snyder's agreement and, later, to close the pipeline because of past violations of its easement. 

The state and Enbridge had their first mediation meeting in April and have two others scheduled in the coming weeks. 

eleblanc@detroitnews.com