Shut down the Mackinac Straits pipeline?


How environmental advocates put Line 5 on the Michigan governor’s desk

By Jacob Wheeler
Sun editor

Burdickville resident Jim Lively, a program director with the Traverse City-based Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities (formerly the Michigan Land Use Institute) is a key player in the Oil & Water Don’t Mix campaign, which calls on the state to shut down two aging oil pipelines under the Straits of Mackinac. The pipelines are owned by Enbridge, the Canadian company responsible for the 2010 Kalamazoo River disaster — the largest on-land oil spill in U.S. history.

Lively and others have turned the Line 5 pipeline controversy into arguably the second biggest environmental story in Michigan — other than the Flint water crisis. We asked him how the grassroots campaign managed to put a 63-year-old, largely forgotten submerged pipeline on the desks and agendas of Michigan’s most important elected leaders.

Glen Arbor Sun: What convinced you to join the campaign to shut down the Line 5 pipeline? Do you remember when and where your realization happened?

Jim Lively: Actually, I was part of a small team of people who launched the campaign. The team first came together riding a bus from Traverse City to the ‘Forward on Climate March’ in Washington D.C in February 2013. That march focused on stopping the Keystone XL pipeline as a climate threat. When our team returned from our grueling adventure of sleeping two nights on a bus together, we focused on how best to engage northern Michigan citizens in opposing a pipeline proposed in Nebraska. It was then that we remembered a report from the National Wildlife Federation released in fall of 2012 called ‘Sunken Hazard’ that described the risk of twin oil pipelines on the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac. None of us were aware of these pipelines and we were lifetime Michigan residents. We were appalled, and realized that Michigan residents would be much more concerned about the real risk to the Great Lakes from these pipelines — operated by the same company that had allowed the disastrous oil spill into the Kalamazoo River in 2010 — than a distant pipeline.

We began organizing a public rally at the straits to raise awareness about this risk, and were fortunate to schedule global climate activist Bill McKibben to attend the rally in July 2013. We had nearly 400 people attend from around the Great Lakes, including Kalamazoo River spill victims, Detroit activists opposing pet coke piles in their neighborhoods, and tribal members. We also reached out to statewide media to make sure they were aware of this issue.

The success of that rally convinced me that this was a tremendously important issue that needed much more attention, and Groundwork allowed me the opportunity to continue working to raise awareness.

Sun: A University of Michigan study published earlier this year found that, while an oil spill in the Straits of Mackinac would reach Beaver Island to the west and coat much of northern Lake Huron to the east, it likely wouldn’t reach Traverse City, Leelanau County and the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. So why is this campaign important for us?

Lively: Michigan is the Great Lakes state, and those of us fortunate to live or visit this magnificent place with so much clean fresh water know better than to take it for granted. The risk of an oil spill anywhere in the Great Lakes is unacceptable, and we all must work to protect this resource.

There is an important recent precedent in Michigan government to eliminate any risk of an oil spill from oil drilling in, on or under the Great Lakes. As recently as 1992 Governor Engler signed legislation to ensure that oil drilling stay well away from the Great Lakes. So these 63-year-old pipelines are part of an antiquated mindset that would accept risking our precious freshwater for the profit of a Canadian oil pipeline company.

Of course, we also know that Michigan’s tourism industry is built on the image of pure, clean water. So even the idea that these precious waters are at risk of a devastating oil spill damages that reputation for all of our tourism. If there were to be an actual spill all of Michigan’s tourism economy would be devastated. Tourists certainly don’t want to vacation on oil-tainted beaches.

Sun: Many nonprofits and advocates collectively make up the Oil and Water Don’t Mix campaign. What, specifically, has been the role of the Groundwork Center in this campaign?

Lively: Following the rally, Groundwork secured funding — much of it from a public crowdfunding campaign supported by Patagonia and Moosejaw, with important early support from Cherry Republic — to launch a public awareness campaign about the straits pipeline. We recognized that we could do this more quickly by engaging the state’s leading environmental organizations. So in May 2014 we hosted an initial meeting at our office Traverse City by inviting more than a dozen organizations to participate in an awareness campaign, which soon became the Oil and Water Don’t Mix campaign.

Groundwork remains an important partner in that campaign, although we are now working on a related but separate effort to engage more business leaders on this issue with our partners at the National Wildlife Federation.

Sun: Did you have an easy or difficult time convincing your colleagues at Groundwork to join this fight? What tough questions did they ask? How does this campaign compare to other initiatives championed by the nonprofit?

Lively: Groundwork’s Executive Director Hans Voss was immediately on board with this campaign, as was our board of directors. We checked in with our board early on to make sure they were comfortable with this effort, recognizing that it was no small thing to take on the oil industry. But there was clear support, recognizing that this issue needed to come to light and that it required a bold campaign.

Perhaps surprisingly, we found it more difficult to convince some of our partner organizations that a position of shutting down the pipeline was plausible. It took some time for the Oil and Water Don’t Mix campaign to craft that position, in light of the difficult legal and political challenges that is poses. But that is now the position of that campaign, and it includes all of the state’s major environmental groups, as well as dozens of business and thousands of citizen supporters.

Groundwork continues to work with partners concerned about climate change to elevate the position that oil cannot be a long-term solution to our transportation needs. The future of transportation is in electrification, and developing clean, renewable fuel sources. We could not be part of supporting an investment in replacing an oil pipeline that might last another 60 years.

Sun: You’ve turned this issue into arguably the biggest environmental story in Michigan — other than the Flint water crisis. You’ve forced media to cover it and politicians to address it. How have you done that? What have been the key strategies Groundwork has employed to put this on the front page?

Lively: Well, it starts with understanding the importance of the Great Lakes to Michigan residents. These lakes are central to our existence, and Michiganders have always proven to be fierce protectors of them. Somehow this pipeline had been forgotten for decades.

It was the disastrous spill in the Kalamazoo River by the same pipeline company Enbridge that brought the reality of this risk to light. So the issue was clearly ripe.

But Groundwork was very deliberate in our awareness campaign. When we launched our public awareness campaign in summer of 2014, we were fortunate to have sufficient resources to produce and air television commercials about the pipeline across northern Michigan during tourist season. Not only did those commercials reach a huge audience, they apparently registered with Governor Snyder’s re-election campaign which was underway at that time. He quickly appointed a task force to look into the pipeline, which gave the issue even more profile and allowed us to focus more clearly on the state’s responsibility to protect the public trust in the lakes.

We also engaged the state’s leading environmental groups in a coordinated Oil and Water Don’t Mix campaign, we were quickly able to expand the message and elevate the issue. Partners such as FLOW dug deep into the legal and policy questions that helped put the focus on our state government. And we created opportunities to engage statewide media and make visual connections for them about the importance:

We had a presence at the 2014 Labor Day Mackinac Bridge Walk, and presented our position to the Governor’s Task Force in Lansing that fall with more media attention.

In May 2015 we held a press conference on Mackinac Island during the Detroit Chamber of Commerce Policy Conference, which is attended by the Governor, Attorney General, business leaders and all of the state’s media.

And were back at the Mackinac Island Policy Conference this past June organizing a reception for business leaders, and expanding this to a mainstream business issue, not only an environmental issue.

We have cultivated relationships with important leaders willing to lend their voices to this issue. Chris Shelper, owner and operator of Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry was willing to be an early spokesperson to make clear the devastating impact an oil spill would have in the straits. Aaron Payment, tribal chairman of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians has also been a prominent spokesman. We’ve found both Michigan U.S. Senators to be strong leaders on this issue, as well as University of Michigan researchers who have studied the impact of a spill. And many of the state’s media have found this issue to be compelling, and we have helped them cultivate their own angles and sources.

Sun: Speaking of the Flint water crisis, how does that impact Line 5 decisions, in terms of policy and politics?

Lively: With the focus of the Line 5 pipeline recognizing the offices of governor and attorney general as the key decision-makers with authority to shut down the pipeline, clearly it is those same offices — as well as the Department of Environmental Quality — that are involved in the Flint water crisis. So there are obvious questions about how closely state officials are paying attention to clear threats to Michigan waters — both Great Lakes water, and residential drinking water.

We have been careful not to deflect media attention from the Flint issue toward Line 5, but there are important parallels about the state’s attention to risks or threats, and how quickly our leaders are willing to take action to prevent a catastrophe. Obviously the delay in Flint had disastrous results. We certainly don’t want a similar disaster in the Straits of Mackinac, especially now that the risk is so clear.

Sun: Why has Groundwork focused on shutting down — rather than regulating — the Enbridge pipeline?

Lively: Our initial goal at the rally was just to raise awareness about the risk to the Great Lakes from these pipelines — but Groundwork always chooses to focus on solutions, rather than just oppose things. We knew from the beginning that a position of shutting down the pipeline would be difficult. In fact, it’s an unprecedented as far as we can tell to call for the decommissioning of an operating pipeline.

But it is equally unprecedented to allow an oil pipeline to lie exposed in the open waters of the Great Lakes, and we could not support putting any of our organization’s resources into a campaign to replace the pipeline or allow it continue to operating in the lakes. So we staked that position early, and worked to convince our partners that it is indeed a plausible position. That position is supported in law and policy, as the state of Michigan is obligated to uphold the public trust in the Great Lakes. That public trust requires that the state not put our waters at risk for private interests.

Sun: You’ve attracted a diverse coalition of liberal Democrats and Republican business owners to this campaign — including Mackinac Island Ferry’s Chris Shepler. How did you bring people across the political aisle?

Lively: The Great Lakes are a staunchly bi-partisan issue. No political party has an advantage in protecting our lakes. The biggest concern we face is the financial power of the oil industry that is backing this oil pipeline, and their ability to use their vast resources to influence decision-makers or the public.

Sun: Attorney General Bill Schuette notified Enbridge earlier this month of pipeline easement violations. Was his move appropriate, or did it not go far enough? In general, how does Schuette’s attention to the pipeline impact your campaign to shut it down?

Lively: Early on our campaign has focused on the unique authority that the State of Michigan has over the Line 5 pipeline due to the easement that allowed it to be placed on the bottomlands of the Straits of Mackinac in 1953. Both the Governor and Attorney General have authority to revoke that easement and protect the public’s trust in the Great Lakes.

We are pleased that they are now paying attention to this issue as a result of our campaign, and we were especially pleased when Attorney General Schuette made statements last summer indicating his clear support for the eventual shut down of the pipeline. But the fact that he is delaying action and not taking swift action to protect the lakes is troubling. He has acknowledged his authority and his concern. Now we need him to take action.

Sun: Many local officials have yet to join the call to shut down the pipeline. The Leelanau County Board of Commissioners refused to pass such a motion. Same with some township officials. These measures seem largely symbolic. Are they nevertheless important to the campaign?

Lively: It’s true that resolutions from local governments calling for shutting down the Line 5 pipeline at the straits are largely symbolic, as authority rests with the state. However, it is also extremely important that our state officials hear from local officials, who can more quickly reflect the concerns of the public. Michigan citizens want action to prevent an oil spill, and local government resolutions help reflect the public sentiment.