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Michigan Democrats divided over Line 5, which could sway primary

Kaye LaFond
Interlochen Public Radio
Line 5 through the straits of Mackinac in the Great Lakes.

Michigan Democrats can usually rely on at least three groups for support: environmentalists, tribal nations and labor unions.

But there’s one issue they don’t all agree on — the future of Enbridge Energy's Line 5 oil pipeline. Some Democrats worry about uniting those groups ahead of the Michigan primary.

A pipeline dividing Democrats

The Line 5 pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac is extremely divisive. Environmentalists and tribal nations say it’s a huge threat to the Great Lakes and want it shut down.

But labor unions say an agreement between the state and Enbridge to put Line 5 in a tunnel would provide jobs and energy to the state. Currently Line 5 sits on the lakebed of the straits.

Bryan Newland, tribal chairman for the Bay Mills Indian Community in the Upper Peninsula, wants the pipeline shut down to protect the water of the Great Lakes, native treaty fishing rights and the tourism economy.

Newland says the tribes and labor agree on most things, but Line 5 is a sticking point.

"That's the challenge of being a Democrat — the tent is very large and you have a lot of folks with disparate interests advocating to the party to look out for us," Newland says.

Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) wants Line 5 shut down, saying it could lead to an oil spill in the Great Lakes.

Former candidates U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachussets), former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said the same thing.

Labor endorsed Whitmer, who publicly opposes Line 5

Line 5 is creating an awkward situation for Michigan’s largest labor, trades groups say, including unions like The Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council.

Secretary-Treasurer of the council Pat Devlin says the plan to put Line 5 in a tunnel will bring jobs to Michigan.

“We always looked at the Democratic party that supported good paying middle class jobs," Devlin says. "That’s exactly — in this situation — a proposal that Democrats seem to be against, for the most part.”


Credit Enbridge Energy
The Line 5 oil pipeline was struck by an anchor in 2018.

Enbridge Spokesperson Ryan Duffy said the tunnel project will bring money into the state and that Michigan labor would build it.

"Enbridge remains committed to moving forward with the Great Lakes Tunnel Project which would invest $500 million into the state to ensure the security of energy supply and reduce risk to the straits to virtually zero, and could be under construction by 2021 and in service in 2024," Duffy said in an email.

But they don't know how many jobs the tunnel project would create, according to Duffy.

The Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council endorsed a lot of Democrats last election cycle, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

When she was running for governor, Whitmer campaigned on removing Line 5 from the straits as soon as possible. In an interview with Detroit Public TV in 2018, she said the tunnel deal between the state and Enbridge was unconstitutional.

“Committing to keeping that line in the water for the next seven to 10 years while a tunnel is being built is downright dangerous,” Whitmer said.

The governor's Legislative Director Tiffany Brown said in an email that Whitmer still opposes that deal, but they recognize the power of the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority, the state body that's overseeing the tunnel project.


Credit Rick Pluta / Michigan Public Radio Network
Michigan Public Radio Network
Governor Gretchen Whitmer has publicly called for Line 5 to be shut down.

"The administration’s position that the statue is unconstitutional hasn’t changed but we are fully committed to following the law, and the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority has the authority to resume its work," Brown said in the email.

Some Democrats aren't on board

The majority of Michigan's Democratic party is against Line 5 and passed a resolution in 2018 asking for it’s immediate shut down and removal.

"The Michigan Democratic Party calls for immediate State action to promote decommissioning and removal of Line 5 from under the straits of Mackinac," the resolution reads.

But not every Democrat is on board. State Rep. Brian Elder (D-Bay City) is one of few Democrats in office that says the pipeline should keep running.

Elder says he’s gotten flack from environmentalists for that stance, but he doesn’t care.

“I was born and raised in the Democratic party, no one’s gonna tell me to adapt my position," Elder says. "It’s my g--damn party, and I’m not leaving.”

Elder admits he's not likely to lose voters over Line 5 as it's not an important issue for his constituents.

That’s not the case for Dan O’Neil, a Democrat trying to flip northern Michigan’s 104th District on the coast of Grand Traverse Bay.

O'Neil, a Travere City attorney, narrowly lost a race for that seat in 2018 and says his most important stance during his campaign was shutting down Line 5.


Credit David Cassleman / Interlochen Public Radio
Interlochen Public Radio
Dan O'Neil is a democrat running for northern Michigan's 104th District in the State House of Representatives

“There was near-universal agreement that the idea of having a 65-year-old oil pipeline running through our drinking water was a bad idea, and we need to do something about it,” O'Neil says.

O’Neil doesn’t support the current proposal for the tunnel, saying it was rushed through a lame-duck session of the legislature and Enbridge hasn’t been transparent in the past.

Line 5 could drive voters to the polls

Several of the state’s biggest labor unions like the Building Trades and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) haven’t endorsed any Democratic presidential candidates yet.

But Line 5 could have an impact on the Michigan presidential primary, according to aa recent poll by The Michigan League of Conservation Voters (MLCV). The league found that primary voters will likely choose their candidate based on their stance on environmental issues like Line 5.

Ninety-five percent of respondents said a plan to protect their water from contamination is an important issue when they vote, and 65 percent said it’s essential. That ranked higher than things like Universal Healthcare and abortion access.

MLCV Spokesman Nick Dodge says Michigan’s voters are sending a message to presidential candidates.

“If you’re coming to Michigan you need to talk about climate change but you need to talk about it in the context of protecting our drinking water in our Great Lakes,” Dodge said.

Dodge added that Sanders could get more votes in the Michigan presidential primary because he wants Line 5 shut down. 

The debate over labor is just beginning

The pipeline is still low on the list of issues for union voters, according to Devlin.

He says Michigan labor groups will probably stay aligned with Democrats for now because they agree on things like Prevailing Wage and Right to Work Laws. But Devlin says a national push for renewable energy and green infrastructure means more fossil fuel projects like Line 5 will inevitably come to a head.

“We’ve already seen an impact … millions of man hours that’ll never be replaced by the renewable energy industry," Devlin says. "Where else are we gonna create these middle class jobs but on these (fossil fuel) projects?”

Voters in Michigan head to the polls Tuesday, March 10.

This story was featured on Points North, you can find the full episode here.

Max came to IPR in 2017 as an environmental intern. In 2018, he returned to the station as a reporter and quickly took on leadership roles as Interim News Director and eventually Assignment Editor. Before joining IPR, Max worked as a news director and reporter at Michigan State University's student radio station WDBM. In 2018, he reported on a Title IX dispute with MSU in his story "Prompt, Thorough and Impartial." His work has also been heard on Michigan Radio, WDBM and WKAR in East Lansing and NPR.