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Care Must Be Taken When Drilling Along Great Lakes Shore

State of the Great Lakes, 1997 annual report

January 9, 1998 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

What makes the colorful, rough, and wild northern Lake Michigan coast one of the world’s truly superb landscapes is that the tension between industrial development, housing, recreation, and environmental protection has gradually been resolved.

In the spring of 1997, however, that thoughtful balance between competing interests threatened to crumble. Newstar Energy, a Canadian company, proposed tapping oil and gas reserves 4,000 feet beneath Lake Michigan and up to a half a mile offshore by installing new wells on the shoreline using directional drilling technology. The proposal was embraced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, which sold the company the necessary bottomland leases. And it was supported by the Geological Survey Division, a unit of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which proposed to approve the drilling permits.

But as word of the plan filtered out of Lansing, the company’s proposal received a different reception. Lake front property owners wanted to know whether Newstar’s wells would lead to oil spills. Conservation groups urged the state to take a closer look at the effect the new wells, and other industrial infrastructure would have on communities and the sensitive shoreline environment. Local government officials criticized the internal administrative decision-making process and called for much greater public involvement in reviewing and overseeing Newstar’s shoreline wells and those planned by other companies.

Faced with escalating public dissent that attracted national and international attention, Gov. John Engler intervened. In August, he asked the Michigan Environmental Science Board, a panel of state-appointed experts, to review the issues and render a conclusion.

In October, the panel did just that. It issued a strong statement of concern for the effects of drilling, and the industrial infrastructure that accompanies it, on the shoreline ecosystem. The panel emphasized the importance of reducing the shoreline land use conflicts by requiring comprehensive environmental planning and increased communication between all stakeholders before the state issues drilling permits.

To achieve those goals, the scientists made these specific recommendations:

    • Prepare an "aggressive" environmental impact study before state minerals are leased.
    • Establish setbacks from sand dunes, wetlands, and other coastal resources.
    • Use the state’s data gathering expertise to both determine environmentally sensitive areas that should not be developed, and already-industrialized areas that should.
    • Invite the public and local governments to participate in deciding where drilling is appropriate, and where it is not.


In short, the Michigan Environmental Science Board produced the most complete and clear-headed plan for developing energy reserves in sensitive areas in nearly 20 years. Not since 1980, when the Milliken Administration, Shell Oil, and the conservation community reached agreement on how best to explore for oil and gas in the Pigeon River Country State Forest, has such a rational and workable land use plan for energy development been officially proposed in Michigan.

It is now up to Mr. Engler and his environmental advisors to put the scientists’ recommendations into effect. Several useful steps have been taken in that direction. The governor has embraced the Science Board’s proposals, as has the director of the Department of Environmental Quality. In December, moreover, the DEQ leadership warily invited five prominent conservation groups to collaborate with senior state officials in preparing a land use plan for shoreline energy development that focuses on protecting natural resources.

The conservation groups, including the Michigan Land Use Institute, are taking the invitation very seriously. Our goal is to ensure that the state establishes new public policy that is consistent with the Science Board recommendations and existing state and federal environmental laws.

It’s somewhat understandable why the DEQ is nervous about handling the Great Lakes drilling issue outside of the internal administrative process. Public input can be messy. It takes time to cooperate with local governments and to hold public hearings. And it forces the state to consider more alternatives.

But that’s just the point. The state’s top environmental scientists have laid the foundation for a workable and effective program of natural resource protection and industrial development. When considering drilling for oil and natural gas in one of the most ecologically and economically valuable ecosystems in world, time and forethought must be taken to do it right.


(Keith Schneider is a writer, commentator on National Public Radio’s Living on Earth, and executive director of the Michigan Land Use Institute in Benzonia. A former national correspondent with the New York Times, Schneider is a regular contributor to the Times, the Detroit Free Press, Traverse Magazine, and the Great Lakes Bulletin, the Institute’s quarterly magazine. )

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