Oil pipeline dividing Michigan Democrats, unions ahead of 2020

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — A fight among key supporters of Michigan Democrats is raging inside the state Capitol, and some Democrats worry it could spill over into the 2020 election.

The disagreement is over Enbridge's plans to construct a tunnel beneath the Straits of Mackinac to replace its Line 5 oil pipelines and attempt to prevent any catastrophe from a potential rupture.

Environmentalists have opposed plans for the tunnel and want the line decommissioned as soon as possible, but some labor groups want the tunnel built. In the middle are Democratic lawmakers who usually have support from both sets of interests.

The contentious battle comes as House Democrats have experienced a drop so far this year in contributions from building trades unions, according to a Detroit News analysis of campaign finance disclosures. Many of them care deeply about protecting the Line 5 tunnel project.

The fight is also dividing Democrats when they are close to recapturing control of the House. If they flip four Republican seats next year, they would get control of the chamber for the first time since 2010. If they win three GOP seats, they would split control with Republicans.

One lawmaker, Rep. Laurie Pohutsky, D-Livonia, said she'd been told Democrats who opposed the tunnel would no longer be considered allies of labor groups in the building trades.

"I am very supportive of organized labor. My record shows this," said Pohutsky, a first-term Democrat who flipped a Republican seat by 224 votes in 2018. "This is one thing we don’t see eye to eye on."

A diver inspects the Line 5 oil pipelines at the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac in 2013.

Labor groups, including the Operating Engineers, the Michigan Laborers and the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council, want the tunnel built because it would generate jobs and an estimated $500 million investment.

Supporters argue the tunnel would safeguard against an oil spill in the Straits of Mackinac. Line 5, which was built in 1953, carries up to 540,000 barrels of oil and natural gas liquids per day, according to Enbridge.

Environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, Clean Water Action and the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, oppose plans for the tunnel because they view Line 5 as a threat to the Great Lakes and want it decommissioned right away.

Both sides have brought their arguments to Democratic House members in closed-door meetings. Many Democratic House members will be up for election next year. The labor groups have tried to win the support of Democratic lawmakers to put pressure on Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, whose office has said she wants to stop "the flow of oil through the Great Lakes as soon as possible."

Enbridge has said it can commit to finishing the tunnel and to stop transporting oil through its aging pipeline by 2024. Whitmer has expressed concerns about Enbridge's timeline and said it's not short enough.

While there's debate about the project's details, there are also larger discussions among some Democrats on climate change and reducing the country's reliance on fossil fuels.

"We need to start looking to the future," argued Sen. Rosemary Bayer, D-Beverly Hills. "We are leaders. We should be leading toward the future, not the past.”

Seeking a compromise?

At least one Democrat is having discussions about potential compromise legislation to gain support for the tunnel but would need Whitmer's signature.

In 2018, the Legislature approved a bill that aimed to authorize the tunnel's construction, but Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel challenged the law in court. The state Court of Claims upheld the law, but Nessel has taken the matter to the Michigan Court of Appeals.

Sen. Adam Hollier, D-Detroit, was the lone Senate Democrat to vote for the 2018 tunnel bill. Hollier said he's working on a package of bills that would address Michigan's larger energy needs, including the tunnel. Hollier said the specifics are still unclear, but he expects the package of bills will likely come in early 2020.

"We're having those discussions about it and it's happening in the context of larger energy discussions," Hollier said, adding that "I'm open to feedback."

Incoming State Senator Adam Hollier D-Detroit,  is surrounded by his family on the floor of the Senate as he is sworn in by Chief Justice Stephen Markman  in Lansing,  Wednesday, January 9, 2019.

If legislation gets introduced, it would keep the Line 5 debate front and center and could increase pressure on Democratic lawmakers to take a side and risk alienating the other side.

House Democrats hold 51 of the 110 House seats with one seat in a Democratic-leaning district vacant. They picked up five GOP seats in 2018 and were about 3,000 votes across four districts from taking the majority.

Now, as they prepare for the 2020 campaign, they find key allies feuding.

Fueling financial disadvantage?

They also find themselves at a major financial disadvantage with some labor groups giving less money than they previously did. The main fundraising committee of House Republicans, the House Republican Campaign Committee, had $2.28 million available as of Oct. 20. The main fundraising committee of House Democrats, the House Democratic Fund, had only $516,878 available.

The difference, $1.76 million, is nearly double the previous largest difference at this point in a two-year election cycle, according to campaign finance records covering the last two decades. 

Michigan House of Representatives, 2018.

The News examined the contributions of seven building trades groups' political action committees to the House Democratic Fund and to committees tied to the two highest ranking House Democrats.

From Jan. 1 through Oct. 20, the groups' PACs had given $72,075. Over the same period ahead of the 2018 election, the same PACs had given $119,500. During the same span ahead of the 2016 election, the same PACs had given $82,500.

Much of the difference was due to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers' PAC. It gave $30,000 to the House Democratic Fund by Oct. 20 in 2015 and 2017. As of Oct. 20, 2019, the PAC hadn't given any money to the fund, according to campaign finance disclosures. IBEW didn't respond to a request for comment.

Dan McKernan, communications director for Operating Engineers Local 324, one of the main labor groups pushing for the tunnel, said he couldn't comment on the positions of other labor groups. But he denied that the relationship between the Operating Engineers and House Democrats was on the rocks.

Rep. Cynthia A. Johnson, D-Detroit, shares a laugh as she tries to operate this heavy equipment backhoe simulator at the Operating Engineers Local 324 display.

House Democratic Leader Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills, has spoken at Operating Engineers events, and House Democratic Floor Leader Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, has walked picket lines with the organization's members, McKernan said.

But he acknowledged that there's no consensus among House Democrats on the Line 5 tunnel that would put a lot of people to work, he said.

"If we don’t stand for that, what good are we as a union?” McKernan asked.

But the unions are facing resistance from environmental groups like Clean Water Action, which have been lobbying House Democrats.

Michigan voters elected a governor, an attorney general and Democratic lawmakers "who campaigned on the promise to decommission Line 5," said Sean McBrearty, Clean Water Action's Michigan legislative and political director.

"We fully expect them to do what Michigan voters elected them to do," McBrearty said.

The debate over Line 5 has been contentious, said Pohutsky, the Democrat who flipped a House seat held by Republicans. There was "frustration" expressed early this year with her opposition to the tunnel, she said, adding, however, that her Wayne County district is against the tunnel.

Hollier said groups on both sides of the debate know where he stands on the tunnel.

The problem with the 2018 legislation, which passed during the December lame duck session, was some groups weren't consulted, he said. Hollier said he wants to bring them into the discussion.

“If you have an idea, if you have a vested interest,” Hollier said, “let me know. I want you at the table.”