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Directional Drilling

An unnecessary risk

October 19, 1997 | By Hans Voss
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

It was vocal opposition from concerned citizens that convinced the governor to take a second look at directional drilling under the Great Lakes. Now a useful re-evaluation of the risks has taken place — but citizens may not be any more able to influence drilling decisions than they were before.

Twelve days ago, a panel of environmental scientists appointed by Gov. John Engler issued the most complete and clear-headed plan for developing energy reserves in sensitive areas in nearly 20 years. In a report that focused on how to safely explore and recover oil and gas from beneath the Great Lakes, the Michigan Environmental Science Board called on the Governor and state regulators to, among other things, take the following actions:

- Prepare an "aggressive" environmental impact study before minerals are leased.

- Establish setbacks from sand dunes, wetlands, and other coastal resources.

- Invite the public and local governments to participate in deciding where drilling is appropriate, and where it is not.

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 proposed.

Initially, Gov. Engler embraced the proposal. His spokesman John Truscott said, "We do need a comprehensive approach."

Russ Harding, director of the Department of Environmental Quality, also said he approved. Calling the Science Board’s plan "prudent," Harding said he would "take immediate steps to address the issues outlined in the report."

But less than two weeks after the report was issued, the Engler Administration is quietly backing away from some of its key provisions. Most notably, the Administration has all but ignored the Board’s recommendations to expand public input.

This a serious mistake. It was the vocal opposition from citizens that convinced the state to re-evaluate the issue in the first place. Any effort to solve the conflicts without their participation simply won’t work.

Public interest in this issue took off when the DEQ authorized a Canadian company, Newstar Energy USA, to drill an onshore well near Manistee to access oil and gas 4,000 feet below Lake Michigan and up to one-half a mile off-shore. Fearing harm to the lake and a proliferation of oil wells along the coastline, citizens flooded elected officials with letters and phone calls.

State Senator Bill Schuette, whose staff said he received more mail opposing the drilling than on all other issues combined, responded first by calling for a ban on drilling under the Great Lakes. Soon afterwards, Gov. Engler halted Newstar’s pending permit applications and ordered an evaluation from the Science Board, a group he formed in 1995 to advise him on environmental matters.

After months of review, the Science Board found the risk of oil leaking directly into the Great Lakes was minimal. In addition to specific recommendations to protect sensitive shoreline resources, the Board called on state agencies to prevent conflicts with the other recreational and residential uses of the land by conducting "comprehensive environmental planning" that includes, "communication between all stakeholders," and the use of "local land use plans."

In a written response to the Science Board report, the DEQ and the Department of Natural Resources dodged the land use conflicts and only paid lip service to expanding public participation. Their solution to the public input issue: implement a 30-day public notice period before leasing minerals under the lakes.

While public input before leasing is necessary, without a comprehensive planning process that invites the public to work with the state in identifying appropriate development sites, the approach is meaningless.

"You can’t solve the land use conflicts without the stakeholders at the table," said Dr. William E. Cooper, a respected natural resources expert and Michigan State University professor who served on the Science Board’s Directional Drilling Panel. "You have to include the community."

It’s somewhat understandable why the shortstaffed DNR and the DEQ want to handle the issue of drilling under the Great Lakes internally. 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. When considering drilling for oil in one of the most ecologically and economically valuable ecosystems in world, time and forethought must be taken to do it right.

The state’s top scientists have laid the foundation for a workable policy. If the DNR and the DEQ are unwilling to fulfill this call, it’s up to citizens — and Gov. Engler — to hold their feet to the fire.


Hans Voss is Associate Director of the Michigan Land Use Institute in Benzonia.

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