Business Leaders Make Economic Case for Shutting Down Line 5

It was a hot, sunny day in mid July of 2013 when 400 people gathered at a rally in the public park on the north end of the Mackinac Bridge to raise awareness of the aging oil pipelines lying on the bottom of the Mackinac Straits. There were passionate speeches, Native American poetry, folk songs, and energetic calls to action. It was quite a day. The organizers, a dedicated group of Traverse City climate activists, believed that once people found out about out the risk to the Great Lakes, they’d rise up and call for shutting down the pipelines.

Nearly four years later, to say people have risen up is an understatement. That first rally ignited a people-powered grassroots movement like nothing I’ve seen in my 20 years of working in environmental advocacy in Michigan – and it’s elevated Line 5 to the top environmental issue in the state. Thousands of people have attended rallies, written letters, and filed petitions asking the governor to exercise his authority to shut down the pipeline. The media has covered it as a running story – including national coverage in The New York Times and the PBS News Hour. The state has established first a task force and now an advisory board to study the risk and analyze alternatives. Elected officials have introduced legislation at the state and federal level.

Despite all of this, those two pipelines, now 64 years old, continue to move 23 million gallons of oil every day through the most important freshwater body on the planet. And just as people were wondering what else is needed, a new group of advocates has emerged that could very well tip the scales toward resolution: the business community.

It started last summer when Dan Musser, the owner of the iconic Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, published a column in the Detroit Free Press titled: “Michigan Must Act Now to Shut Down Line 5.” Then Larry Bell, the owner of Bell’s Brewery, stepped forward and began urging state officials to take action and he reached out to the other businesses to get involved. Soon the Great Lakes Business Network was born, a group of businesses across Michigan that are making the economic case for shutting down Line 5.

Their message is straightforward: Line 5 is bad for business. We can get by without the oil from Line 5 and our economy is too reliant on the Great Lakes and tourism to justify the risk. They point out that the majority of the oil from Line 5 passes right through Michigan, is refined in Canada, and transported via pipeline to export markets in Montreal and overseas. Further, they document that Michigan can easily get the oil we need to support our economy from other pipelines coming in from southern Michigan.

Some have raised concerns that people in the Upper Peninsula would be left without propane if Line 5 were decommissioned. But only one out of five UP homes are heated with propane and their needs can be met with one to two propane rail cars or a few tanker trucks a day.

Ultimately, too many jobs are dependent on the Great Lakes. According to Michigan Sea Grant, a widely respected research institute administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 1.5 million jobs are directly connected to the Great Lakes, generating $62 billion in wages.

Of course, it’s plain common sense that an oil leak in the Great Lakes will hurt our regional tourism economy. That’s one reason northern Michigan businesses are stepping forward to join the Great Lakes Business Network, which now has 40 members and is growing fast. Among the local leaders are well-known companies like Short’s Brewing Co., M-22, Great Lakes Potato Chips, Cherry Republic, Shepler’s Ferry, American Spoon, and Higher Grounds Coffee.

Meanwhile, Enbridge, the owner of the pipeline, and its allies in the American Petroleum Institute have ramped up their lobbying campaign as well, insisting that the Line 5 is safe.

That doesn’t float with Larry Bell who saw first hand the consequences when Enbridge’s Line 6B ruptured and spilled nearly a million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River in 2010. Earlier this year, Bell told The Boyne City Gazette, “Enbridge’s oil disaster really hit home for me. 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 shore and beyond.”

I think Larry Bell is right – and I am encouraged to see the business community getting involved. When the citizen-based environmental movement that started four years ago is joined by the economic campaign driven by private sector leaders, the pressure on state officials to shut down Line 5 is reaching a tipping point.

Hans Voss is the Executive Director of the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities in Traverse City. Groundwork is helping to coordinate the Great Lakes Business Network. Find out how your company can get involved at or by contacting Hans at