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Drawing Closer to a Ban

Michigan Senate vote on drilling opens new era of reform

February 15, 2002 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


The state Senate vote on Great Lakes drilling illustrated that elected leaders grasp the completely sane principle that the environment is the economy. That means eliminating drilling rigs near the Lake Michigan shore, like this one in Manistee, Michigan.

Mark this one down for the history books. On Wednesday, February 13, 2002, the Michigan Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill that permanently bans oil and gas drilling beneath the Great Lakes. By itself, that is a startling outcome for a conservative legislative body that just eight months ago defied growing public opposition and stubbornly approved a budget bill that included new procedures to tap energy reserves beneath Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

But the state Senate vote, coming on the heels of a 98-7 state House vote in late January to ban Great Lakes drilling, represents something more: A welcome reckoning in Lansing with the importance of environmental protection and the unmistakable start of a new era of progressive policy-making to safeguard Michigan’s natural treasures.

Indeed, with accelerating momentum, the Legislature and top elected leaders are exhibiting striking sympathy for measures that strengthen protections for Michigan’s land, water, and open spaces. A bipartisan Senate task force last month, for instance, proposed a sweeping 66-point agenda of legislative reforms to protect the Great Lakes. The task force report includes recommendations for a new law that ensures Michigan does not just give away its fresh water, as it did last year when it approved the Perrier Company’s plan to bottle Great Lakes water. This and other reforms to protect the Great Lakes attracted refreshing cheers from both sides of the aisle and from every candidate for governor.

Lawmakers have also expressed surprisingly open attitudes about new models of regional governance that could make it much easier to stem sprawl, strengthen urban neighborhoods, and solve traffic congestion.
In the closing days of the 2001 session, the House approved a bill to establish a regional transit authority in southeast Michigan, an important step toward improving the region’s public transportation program.

The Legislature also passed a bill that requires local governments to share new master plans with neighbors before they are adopted. Neighboring governments can comment on, but not veto, the plans. Still, sharing information between local governments accustomed to making decisions on their own is an important step towards more coordination in zoning and development. A related bill that also passed allows builders to cluster new homes on smaller lots and leave valuable wetlands, trees, and open spaces untouched. 

What’s striking about these votes is that they are being made in the face of an economic recession, which is generally the most opportune time for the anti-environmental brigades and their legislative allies to prevail.

Not this year. The Legislature’s decision to ban Great Lakes drilling came five months after K.L. Cool, the director of the state Department of Natural Resources, complied with a recommendation from the Michigan Natural Resources Commission to issue new leases to companies interested in exploring for oil and natural gas reserves beneath the lakes.

That decision was made just three days after the September 11 attacks and in the face of nearly unanimous opposition by citizens, state lawmakers, and members of Michigan’s congressional delegation. At the urging of Democratic representatives Bart Stupak and David Bonior, and Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow, Congress approved a new law, signed by President Bush, that blocked for two years any new Great Lakes drilling permits while the US Army Corps of Engineers studied safety concerns.

Indeed, what the state Senate vote illustrated is that with the exception of the governor and a handful of others, Michigan’s top elected leaders grasp the completely sane principle that the environment is the economy. For Michigan to remain economically competitive it must provide citizens a superior quality of life. That means not only conserving the state’s four million-acre public domain, and keeping lakes and rivers unpolluted but also investing in neighborhoods, reducing traffic congestion, and stemming the march of strip malls and subdivisions into the countryside.

Michigan’s lawmakers, of course, once understood the unyielding tie between an unpolluted and uncluttered landscape and a healthy economic future. That’s why during the 1970s and early 1980s, under moderate Republican Governor William Milliken, the state set the standard nationally for enacting landmark laws that protected Michigan’s critical dunes, natural rivers, wetlands, lakes and streams, and provided citizens with the legal authority to sue polluters to halt abuses.

In the 1990s, largely in response to the 1980s recession, Michigan temporarily abandoned its responsibilities to the land and water. Lawmakers got elected by running against environmental progress, convincing voters that "burdensome" rules and "faceless bureaucrats" cost jobs. The result was that the Legislature looked the other way as thousands of acres of wetlands were needlessly ruined, tens of billions of gallons of raw sewage poured each year into the state’s waters, and vast expanses of public forest in northern Michigan were carved up for natural gas development.

As the senseless damage mounted, citizens began to grasp the consequences of policymaking designed almost exclusively to thwart existing environmental laws and a new wave of environmental activism emerged. Because of it, in 1998 the Legislature passed five new laws to strengthen public oversight of oil and gas development. In 1999, revulsion to massive sand and soil erosion into Lake Michigan from the Arcadia Bluffs golf course north of Manistee prompted Attorney General Jennifer Granholm to sue the owner. A year later the Legislature passed new amendments that strengthened the 1972 state soil erosion control law. It was the first time in more than 10 years that lawmakers strengthened a core state environmental statute.

In November 2000, the electoral power of the environmental issue became apparent at the ballot box when voters from at least 13 townships and counties tossed out of office their business-at-any-cost leaders and elected new ones who were much more sensitive to protecting natural resources and grappling with sprawl.

Politicians took notice. Every candidate for governor has made it plain that preserving natural resources, cleaning lakes and rivers, and ending the era of pollution permissiveness is a top priority. Even Lieutenant Governor Dick Posthumus, the favorite for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, proposed a "Marshall Plan" to protect the Great Lakes, opposed drilling beneath the lakes, and said he was concerned about diversions of Michigan’s fresh water to other states.

Skeptics will rightly argue that some of this is election year rhetoric. But how refreshing that civic interest in the environment and the quality of life is already influencing legislative decisions and will help decide the next governor. Is a new era of environmental progress unfolding in Michigan? You bet it is. Best of all it builds on the proven safeguards Michigan enacted a quarter century ago.

Keith Schneider is an environmental journalist and program director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at
keith@mlui.org. A version of this article was published by the Detroit Free Press on February 14, 2002.

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