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Hold Back the Drills

Energy solutions shouldn’t include destruction of state’s natural treasures

March 20, 2001 | By Hans Voss
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

As the nightly news warns the country to prepare for California-like energy shortages and more of people’s paychecks go to filling car gas tanks and heating homes, the reality of our nation’s dependency on oil and natural gas is hitting home — and the energy industry is trying to take advantage of it.

Industry executives are calling for opening up new lands for drilling, loosening environmental regulations, and increasing taxpayer subsidies. Their answer: Take whatever means necessary to increase domestic production and profits. The best solution is to challenge policy makers and ourselves alike to be smarter than we’ve been in the past.

Rather than rushing to drill more wells, we must ensure that whatever drilling takes place meets the highest environmental standards. And instead of allowing the oil industry to exploit the situation, the heightened public awareness should be an opportunity to initiate energy programs that both increase supply without compromising the environment and reduce demand with sound conservation programs.

America has demonstrated that energy conservation works, but we can do much more. As a result of federal fuel efficiency standards the average car today uses 50 percent less gasoline than in 1976. It’s been 15 years though since the standards were increased and the time has come to raise them, especially for SUVs. But it’s not only up to the automakers to save energy. If, for example, every American household replaced four ordinary light bulbs with energy efficient ones, we could save as much energy as is consumed by 7 million cars in one year.

As a nation we have also learned that protecting the environment is good for business. The unprecedented economic growth of the 1990s occurred even as a generation of laws and regulations designed to protect natural resources took effect. And there is no better example of the economic importance of a clean environment than Michigan, where natural resource-based tourism drives huge segments of the economy.

Michiganders have a lot at stake in the energy development debate. In the early 1990s northern lower Michigan was the most active natural gas development zone in the country. Prompted by a lucrative federal tax credit program designed to spur domestic natural gas production, 6,500 new wells were drilled between Alpena and Manistee in less than a decade. The tax credit achieved its target, but not without a considerable price. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, taxpayers are still shelling out $125 million a year in subsidies to support the Michigan natural gas industry, $1 billion a year to support production nationwide.

Northern Michigan also paid a price. Thousands of miles of new roads and pipeline corridors, along with clearings for drilling sites and compressing stations, fragmented more than 1 million acres of forest. With few environmental safeguards and a ridiculously sparse staff of state regulators, the freshly opened earth washed into rivers and streams, and state forests turned into development zones. Until a citizen lawsuit ended the practice, pipelines trenched through rivers and damaged some of the state’s finest trout streams. At one point, the industry was so brazen as to challenge the decades-old ban on drilling on state land in the Jordan River Valley, a stunning 22,000-acre state forest northeast of Traverse City.

The industry’s recklessness and the state’s mismanagement ignited a powerful grassroots movement. Citizens went head to head with oil industry lobbyists and came out with results. State agencies improved the way they planned for and regulated the drilling. The Legislature passed new laws to increase oil industry accountability and protect natural areas. The ban on drilling in the Jordan Valley was upheld.

Now the energy companies are making the case that Michigan needs more wells. And it looks like the Engler administration is showing a sympathetic ear. This month the Department of Natural Resources took the first steps toward lifting a nearly 3-year moratorium on leasing the oil and gas rights beneath the Great Lakes. Fierce citizen opposition is already mounting.

The result of the energy debate is far from theoretical. When working families can’t afford to keep their homes heated through the winter, policy makers need to come up with real solutions. The question though is to what extent we will learn from our experiences.

Reducing demand by providing incentives for energy conservation is an essential part of the solution. Rolling back environmental laws and pouring tax money into industry subsidies would be a costly and shortsighted mistake. As we chart a course for a 21st-century energy policy, let’s carry forward Michigan’s rich conservation tradition. It is our foundation for a strong and diverse economy.

A version of this article was published in the Detroit Free Press on March 14, 2001.

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