Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has consistently opposed the construction of a tunnel around Enbridge’s Line 5 oil pipeline. In March, the Democrat made good on that promise, signing an executive order nullifying former Gov. Rick Snyder’s approval of construction and signalling that a complete shutdown is imminent. This executive order has divided Michigan’s Democratic Party, pitting labor unions and environmentalists against each other.
Such debates, whether it be an oil pipeline, coal mining or fracking, are often presented as environmental protection on one side and protecting jobs on the other. Politicians can either support the economy or protect the environment, never both. Democrats have to make the case that you can create thousands of jobs while also shutting down fossil fuel infrastructure like Line 5.
The reasons for opposing a tunnel are clear. Its construction would take an estimated seven to 10 years. The clock is ticking on the more than 60 year old pipeline that could rupture at any moment. The risk - threatening 20% of the world’s fresh water and Michigan’s tourism industry - is simply not worth the reward. The image below shows how much havoc an oil spill would wreak.
The Michigan Democratic Party, however, is reliant on interest groups that want the pipeline immediately shutdown and others that support tunnel construction. Environmental protection groups such as the Sierra Club, Clean Water Action and the Michigan League of Conservation Voters oppose its construction while organized labor throughout Michigan disagrees - because of the jobs tunnel construction would create.
Gov. Whitmer has to make the case that by investing heavily in Michigan’s roads, bridges and green infrastructure, the jobs and potential jobs lost by shutting down Line 5 will be more than made up for. Michigan labor leaders have said that up to 25,000 union members depend on Line 5 “to provide work opportunities,” but this is no excuse to continue endangering the Great Lakes.
It is important to note that Whitmer cannot support the shutdown of Line 5 without offering alternative job creation strategies. If this is not done, the Republicans will win the 2020 state election by huge margins.
Such battles are happening all over the country within the Democratic Party. The party needs to take the side of environmentalists while also arguing that improving infrastructure and going green will create tens of thousands of jobs. It is estimated that $1 billion in infrastructure investment creates 5,000 direct jobs. This does not include jobs created through suppliers.
This is how you build the economy of the future instead of perpetuating one that is stuck in the past. West Virginia works as another prime example. The debate is often presented as environmentalists on one side and working class coal miners on the other. Just like shutting down Line 5, the jobs lost from ending the production of coal could be made up for via investments into infrastructure and going green. It is not an either-or situation.
The continued burning of coal, a poisonous fossil fuel, is not worth the jobs tied to it. Whitmer has to make this case in regards to Line 5 but must be abundantly clear that those who will lose their job via a shutdown will have a high paying job waiting for them.
To protect the Michigan environment, Democrats have no choice but to stand up to interest groups, whether it be corporations or organized labor that are holding onto outdated industries. Net benefits to society almost always result in some short-term negatives and the loss of good union jobs in the fossil fuel industry is the collateral damage on a path to a green economy.
If the Democratic Party remains too fearful of unions to support policies that will help combat climate change, nothing will ever change. Military spending will never be cut because of the jobs that depend on it. Medicare-for-all will never be implemented because of the jobs created by the private health insurance industry.
To make things better, politicians will have to risk their political careers and hopefully Gov. Whitmer is willing to take that risk.