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Posthumus Skips Crucial Great Lakes Drilling Forums

Is gubernatorial candidate credible on the environment?

September 14, 2001 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Lieutenant Governor Dick Posthumus startled the state last July when he broke with Governor John Engler, his close friend and political mentor, and announced his opposition to drilling for oil and gas beneath the Great Lakes. The weeks since have been good ones for Posthumus. Although he’s yet to officially declare himself to be a candidate for governor, the Kent County Republican is widely recognized as his party’s prohibitive favorite. One reason is that he’s developed an attractive campaign message, telling G.O.P. audiences that he "wants to get all A’s in the three E’s: The economy, education, and the environment."

This week, Mr. Posthumus had an opportunity to really prove it but faltered.

On Thursday afternoon the Natural Resources Commission, the citizen board that advises the Department of Natural Resources, met in Chelsea to consider a recommendation by the agency’s staff to grant new drilling leases beneath Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

Later that evening in Traverse City, a new state Senate Great Lakes Conservation Task Force held the first of eight regional hearings designed to develop new policy to protect the Great Lakes, and Michigan’s water-based economy and quality of life, from raw sewage overflows, erosion, toxic contamination, exotic species, water diversions, and, yes, oil and gas development.

The two crucial meetings, neither of which Mr. Posthumus attended, were a
rare and visible turning point for Michigan. The first represented the last gasp of the Engler administration’s old and increasingly unpopular 20th century approach to exploiting natural resources. The second reflected a 21st century reckoning with a new economy based on keeping Michigan’s resources in their natural state.

In other words the old order still governs here, but the future is rushing in. Polls of likely voters taken by both the Democrats and Republicans show that water quality, Great Lakes drilling, and other environmental concerns are much higher priorities than in previous years. Every Democrat candidate for governor opposes drilling beneath the Great Lakes and is running on a strong environmental protection platform. Four of the seven Republican members of the Michigan Congressional delegation voted in June to block the state from allowing Great Lakes drilling.

To a large extent, the prominence Mr. Posthumus has given to protecting natural resources is really a recognition of the much higher priority that environmental issues hold for voters. But the drilling issue is politically tricky for Mr. Posthumus. He is, after all, an important member of the governor’s administration. And Mr. Posthumus’ allegiance to Gov. Engler, along with his deep roots in the Republican party’s right wing, mean the Lieutenant Governor also has to appear respectful of his boss’ environmental agenda or risk eroding his campaign’s voter base and financial support, especially from business interests.

Having assessed the situation, Mr. Posthumus is nevertheless steadily distancing himself publicly from Mr. Engler. In early June, he told the Petoskey News Review that he would establish much better relationships with local governments because his style of seeking conciliation rather than confrontation distinguishes him from the governor. He also called for a "Marshall Plan" to protect water quality in Michigan.

Then in July came the big announcement about Great Lakes drilling. Matt Resch, Posthumus’ spokesman, said the Lieutenant Governor spent months looking at the issue closely. He met with members of the Michigan Environmental Science Board, the expert panel Gov. Engler appointed in 1997 to study the risks of drilling beneath the Great Lakes.

Mr. Posthumus, said Mr. Resch, agreed with the Science Board’s conclusion that there was an insignificant threat of oil or gas leaking into the water from wells drilled 4,000 feet beneath the lakes. But the Science Board also found there was a considerable risk to the Great Lakes shoreline from wells, pipelines, roads, pumping stations, and other infrastructure needed to move energy to market. "He looked at exactly what Michigan would gain now and concluded the benefits do not outweigh the future costs," said Mr. Resch.

But one statement in opposition was all that Mr. Posthumus was prepared to do in public, said Mr. Resch. Mr. Resch said Mr. Posthumus had privately expressed his misgiving about Great Lakes drilling to every member of the Natural Resources Commission. "He did not want to grandstand in front of the cameras," said Mr. Resch. "He went about it in a way that he thought would be constructive."

The question, of course, is whether voters believe that’s enough? The answer is probably not. Until July, Mr. Posthumus steadfastly supported every wasteful environmental initiative undertaken by the Engler administration over the last decade — from issuing blanket approvals to ruin hundreds of acres of wetlands across the state, to selling large parcels of public lands for private development, to allowing tens of thousands of acres of northern Michigan forest to be needlessly cut up for natural gas development.

Coastal drilling is, arguably, the most prominent environmental dispute in Michigan in more than 20 years. Mr. Posthumus has the authority and influence to single-handedly curtail it if he really wanted to. Now that he’s spoken out in opposition, his credibility is on the line to close the deal. If he doesn’t succeed, his Democratic opponents won’t let him forget. And voters are almost certain to give him an F on one of his three E’s.

Read Keith Schneider's Testimony-->Read Keith Schneider's Testimony

Keith Schneider, a regular contributor to the Detroit Free Press, www.gristmagazine.com, and the Great Lakes Bulletin, is program director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org.

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