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What About “Sound Science?”

On Great Lakes drilling, Engler administration rejects own principles

April 12, 2001 | By Hans Voss
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

When making far-reaching decisions about Michigan’s environment and public health, no one disputes the need to base them on the best available scientific data. Michigan’s air, water, and land — and the future generations that will live with the results of our decisions — deserve nothing less than the best the scientific community can offer.

This is the principle of "sound science, " the fundamental tenet by which conservative lawmakers and industrial leaders contend they protect the environment more effectively. But when it comes to drilling for gas and oil beneath the Great Lakes, Michigan’s conservative leaders not only abandoned their own "sound science" principle, they became unwittingly snared in an untenable double-standard that citizens are rejecting.

Here’s how this happened and why Michigan residents need to support an indefinite ban on drilling beneath the Great Lakes. Three and a half years ago, in response to sharp public protest over a Canadian company’s proposal to tap oil reserves beneath Lake Michigan, Governor John Engler appointed a panel of top scientists — the Michigan Environmental Science Board — to study the potential risks.

In the fall of 1997, the Science Board published a report that concluded state policy was not nearly rigorous enough to protect one of the world’s superb scenic coasts from the harm associated with new wells, roads, pipelines, and processing stations. The Engler-appointed panel laid out specific directives, backed by sound scientific review, before any leasing could occur.

Among those recommendations was bringing together local leaders, concerned citizens, state officials, and the industry to establish an energy development plan that protected the coast and communities while enabling the industry to efficiently develop oil and gas reserves. The Science Board also recommended that any new drilling use existing wells, roads, and other infrastructure, and not cause new damage along the coast.

At the time, the Engler administration and many conservationists hailed the Science Board’s findings as forward thinking and reasonable. In a joint press release the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Natural Resources said, "the state will move swiftly to implement the science panel's key recommendation."

But rather than following through with these recommendations, the administration is selectively choosing to apply only a few of the recommendations, especially the easy ones like mandating that any new wells be at least 1,500 feet from the shoreline.

The fact that the administration refuses to comply is disturbing for many reasons. First, as residents of Michigan, we expect our public officials to set the bar as high as possible when it comes to the Great Lakes, our greatest economic and environmental asset. If we can’t do it right on the coast, why do it at all?

Secondly, there is a public trust issue at stake. The oil and gas deposits under the Great Lakes are owned by all of the citizens of Michigan. It is the state’s job to manage them for the public interest, not the oil industry’s. A recent poll showed that 59% of Michigan residents oppose Great Lakes drilling. The overriding theme of the Science Board’s report was to promote citizen involvement. Still, the DEQ and the DNR are intent on limiting public participation.

The debate over Great Lakes drilling is another reminder of this bleak period in Michigan’s proud legacy of conservation. Contrast today’s short-sighted policy making to the debate in the 1970s over drilling in the Pigeon River Country State Forest near Gaylord. Back then, the DNR prepared a full environmental assessment, developed a carefully crafted management plan for drilling that limited environmental damage, and set up a special citizen oversight committee to monitor the development. That oversight committee is still in existence.

Under the Engler administration, Lansing simply hasn’t shown any interest in attaining the same level of oversight. And the result has been disfigured forests and damaged streams. In the 1990s, drillers installed 6,000 Antrim natural gas wells across ten northern Michigan counties, and in the process ripped up hundreds of thousands of acres of once-intact state and private forests.

The cost of repeating this mistake along Michigan’s coast is too great. Drilling beneath Lake Michigan requires a far more intensive level of oversight than the DEQ or the DNR mustered for the Antrim natural gas bonanza of the 1990s. Further, the DEQ’s hands-off attitude toward the energy industry leaves significant doubt about the agency's resolve to effectively oversee oil and gas development on Lake Michigan's shoreline at the start of the 21st century. Let’s listen to the governor’s own experts on this one, back "sound science," and ban drilling until the state has the will to do it safely.

Hans Voss is the executive director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. A version of this article was published in the Detroit News on April 11, 2001

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