Ohio jobs at risk as Michigan governor threatens pipeline closure

Ohio jobs at risk as Michigan governor threatens pipeline closure

Two Ohio refineries rely on oil from the Line 5 pipeline. But Michigan’s governor wants to shut it down.

The Line 5 oil pipeline provides hundreds of union jobs for Ohio workers while indirectly supporting thousands of additional jobs in Ohio communities. But if Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gets her way, many of those jobs will vanish.

On June 16, the Ohio Senate passed a resolution that “respectfully urges Governor Whitmer … to work with Enbridge and other interested parties to keep Line 5 safely operating, to protect jobs, the economy, and national security.”

Whitmer is pushing to close the aging pipeline, which passes through the Straits of Mackinac, due to environmental concerns over potential spillage. But Ohio’s governor, and many of the state’s lawmakers, believe there are less drastic ways to avoid spills. At stake are not only two Ohio oil refineries, but also the communities and the way of life they support.

Line 5 – operated by the Canadian company Enbridge – serves the BP-Husky Toledo refinery in Oregon, which employs 625 people, and PBF Energy’s 123-year-old Toledo Refining Co. plant in East Toledo, which employs 585 people. If Line 5 is shut down, both refineries – as well as additional refineries in Michigan and Canada – are likely to close.

The Ohio Senate’s resolution notes with approval that “Enbridge has committed to a $500 million project to replace the current pipelines that run through the [Straits of Mackinac] with a new tunnel and line buried four hundred feet beneath the [Straits].” Moreover, Enbridge has promised to use U.S.-made steel and unionized labor in the construction of the new project.

“Our states have much at risk in terms of potential fuel price spikes, lost jobs, airline schedule disruptions and lost transportation project funding,” Gov. Mike DeWine wrote in a letter to Whitmer in June 2019. “We ask that you please consider options to improve the safety of Line 5 that does not result in taking the pipeline offline.”

But Whitmer did not heed DeWine’s advice. In November 2020, she revoked the pipeline’s easement, or right to use Michigan waters – effective May 2021. According to Whitmer, Enbridge’s easement violated the public trust doctrine, which imposes upon the state the duty to protect the Great Lakes on behalf of its citizens, because the pipeline caused “an unacceptable risk of a catastrophic oil spill.”

“Running pipelines through the water of the Great Lakes is, and always has been, a dangerous threat,” Whitmer wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in May. “I will not sit idle as this time bomb keeps ticking.”

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel sued Enbridge in November 2020 to enforce Whitmer’s directive to shut down the pipeline. Ohio Attorney General David Yost filed an amicus curiae brief defending Enbridge’s position in the case, focusing on the economic harm of shutting down Line 5. Litigation remains ongoing and Enbridge has thus far defied the Michigan governor’s order, continuing to operate the pipeline.

The Canadian government, like Ohio, has backed Enbridge. In Canada’s view, the pipeline is an international matter that should be decided between Canada and the U.S, – not between states. Line 5 begins in Wisconsin and terminates in Ontario. In support, Canada cites a 1977 treaty, in which Canada and the U.S. agreed to “ensure the uninterrupted transmission by pipeline” of oil and gas between the two nations.

Constructed in 1953, the Line 5 pipeline today transports up to 540,000 barrels per day, or about 22.7 million gallons – serving a substantial portion of its states’ markets. Northwest Ohio fuel manufacturers – relying in significant part on Line 5 – produce 30% of Ohio’s gasoline and 35% of Ohio’s diesel. Moreover, Line 5 also supplies 55% of Michigan’s statewide propane demand.

If the pipeline were shut down it could mean an end to thousands of jobs and even entire communities. The Toledo Refining Co. in East Toledo is one of the oldest refineries in the United States. For some people, working there is a venerable family tradition. “It’s not just a job,” said Mike Sarns Jr., who has been at the refinery for 40 years. “It’s home, man.” Before him, his father and grandfather both worked at the plant.

Supporters of the refinery worry that if Line 5 is shut down, there will be no viable alternative sources of crude oil for the plant, putting its existence in jeopardy.

The refinery employs over 550 full-time workers and as many as 600 contractors. The ripple effects of a shutdown would likely extend beyond the plant, to the surrounding community.

As Ohio and other Midwestern states recover from the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic, state leaders should be prioritizing economic growth. For now, Line 5 remains in operation, and Ohio remains hopeful for a mutually agreeable solution that protects the environment while preserving energy supply and Ohio jobs.

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