Photo of Jim Lively by Beth Price for Traverse Magazine
Michigan business leaders today announced the formation of the Great Lakes Business Network (GLBN), with a primary objective of decommissioning twin oil pipelines under the Straits of Mackinac. The companies, which include Michigan breweries, food and tourism enterprises, as well as national outdoor retailer Patagonia, are highly concerned about the risks to their businesses and communities poised by the 63-year-old pipelines that were designed to last 50 years and are operated by the company responsible for the largest inland oil disaster in U.S. history in Kalamazoo.
“Enbridge’s oil disaster really hit home for me,” said Larry Bell, owner of Bell’s Beer in Kalamazoo. “It was absolutely devastating for our community. I pledged to do all I can to not let that happen anywhere else in Michigan. For a company like Enbridge, which made more than $960 million in profits in the first quarter of 2016, an oil spill and the associated costs may be considered the cost of doing business. But I guarantee you that an oil spill in the Straits would be a disaster to Michigan’s local businesses up and down the Great Lakes and beyond.”
GLBN is an initiative spearheaded by the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, the Michigan League of Conservation Voters and the National Wildlife Federation, with the goal of giving key business leaders a voice in expressing their concerns with the Line 5 oil pipelines through the Straits of Mackinac.
I asked my colleague Jim Lively the following questions about GLBN, its strategy and objectives. Lively is Groundwork’s senior policy specialist and a key instigator behind the campaign to shut down Line 5.
Question: What is the Great Lakes Business Network, and how is it distinct from the Oil & Water Don’t Mix campaign?
Answer: The Great Lakes Business Network is a group of business leaders who recognize the value of pristine Great Lakes to our region’s longterm economy and are willing to speak up to defend them. This network gives business leaders a platform to raise their concerns and help support the protection of the Great Lakes.
The risk of an oil spill caused by the Enbridge Line 5 pipelines at the Straits of Mackinac are a clear threat to the integrity of the Great Lakes. Over the past couple of years this issue has been elevated by a campaign of environmental groups from across the region that helped raise awareness about the risk. These groups have done a great service by bringing the risk forward. But the value of the Great Lakes to our region should not be limited as something that “only environmental groups are concerned about”. The lakes are at the core of our economy, and many business leaders want to add their own independent voices to this issue.
Question: Who is behind the Great Lakes Business Network, and what are you hoping to accomplish?
Answer: This network has been created in response to a demand from many business leaders who are frustrated that the business case for protecting the Great Lakes has not been emphasized in the Line 5 issue. The Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities and National Wildlife Federation Great Lakes Regional Office were the leading organizations that helped uncover this threat in 2013 and bring it to the media. Now those groups are partnering to support businesses to raise their voices. The goal of the network is to call on state leaders to take action to remove the threat to our Great Lakes by decommissioning Line 5 at the Straits of Mackinac before a disastrous oil spill occurs there.
We have a unique opportunity in Michigan for our Governor or Attorney General to take action to decommission Line 5 at the straits. Generally the federal government has permitting authority for all international and interstate oil pipelines, but the company must acquire access to the pipeline right of way. In 1953 when Enbridge’s predecessor sought a short-cut for their Canadian-owned pipeline through the Straits of Mackinac, the State of Michigan passed a special law granting the Department of Natural Resources the authority to grant easements for a pipeline on the bottomlands of the Great Lakes. That law retained the authority for Michigan to revoke that easement if the company violated the terms and conditions that “the department determines just and reasonable”. As a result of this unique easement, the offices of Michigan’s governor and attorney general hold unique authority over the fate of Line 5 at the Straits of Mackinac.
Question: Which particular voices from the business community are you amplifying, and why?
Answer: We are finding support from many sectors of the business community including breweries, food businesses, outdoor recreation, artists, and other high profile business owners looking to connect their voice and business name to this issue. And these are not only northern Michigan businesses, but we are also finding support in southeast Michigan and west Michigan, as well as the Upper Peninsula. And we have only just begun soliciting other business voices to join. We expect to bring many more businesses to the Network.
We’re pleased to have some very prominent business leaders join the Network at the outset:
Larry Bell of Bell’s Brewery in Comstock, and Upper Hand Brewery in Escanaba;
Bob Sutherland of Cherry Republic;
Chris Shepler of Sheplers Mackinac Island Ferry;
Rich Bergmann of Lake Charlevoix Brewing Company;
Dan Sloboda of Patagonia’s Chicago store;
Kris Spaulding of Brewery Vivant in Grand Rapids;
Beryl Skrocki of Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak in Empire;
Mark Sellers of Hopcat and Barfly Ventures.
Question: How do critiques of Line 5 from the business community differ from what you’ve heard from citizens, activists and policymakers?
Answer: The business community shares the personal connection and love for the Great Lakes that we have heard expressed by so many citizens and activists, but they also add a very pragmatic perspective about the necessity of clean water for doing business. Here in Michigan we are blessed with so much clean, fresh water that it’s easy to take it for granted — but business owners are aware that without clean water, they would be out of business.
Question: Are we living in an epoch when business voices resonate more than the voices of lawmakers or elected leaders? What lessons can we glean from that?
Answer: When there are critical issues like this, where the public interest in clean water is in conflict with powerful oil industry, it helps to have the reasoned voice of other business leaders to make the broader business case for taking difficult action. Citizen voices and opposing interest groups often lead with passion and unbridle anger, while the business community brings a more practical and reasoned perspective.