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Great Lakes Directional Drilling:

A MLUI Critique of State Agency Actions

October 1, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

At the direction of Governor John Engler, the Michigan Environmental Science Board studied how directional drilling from the shoreline under the Great Lakes poses risks to land and water. In October 1997, the panel issued its findings in a seven-page report. It concluded that current state policy was not adequate to protect one of the world’s superb scenic coasts from the land use risks associated with new wells, roads, pipelines, and processing stations.

The panel members, all of whom Gov. Engler appointed, issued specific recommendations for improving the planning and oversight of hydrocarbon development from the shoreline. The governor publicly embraced these recommendations. The Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Natural Resources issued a news release on October 29, 1997 that said, "the state will move swiftly to implement a science panel's key recommendations concerning directional drilling under the Great Lakes."

State Government Shortcomings

The Michigan Land Use Institute conducted a formal review of the Science Board’s recommendations in order to evaluate the state’s progress. As a result of its review, the Institute concluded that both the DEQ and the DNR are avoiding carrying out the Science Board’s most important recommendations:

  1. The Science Board called on the DNR to restrict mineral leasing and energy development to areas where wells, pipelines, and service roads already exist. The agency has not issued a formal order to carry out the recommendation.
  2. A process to conduct comprehensive inventories of environmental features and existing uses of land in areas proposed for drilling has not been established, nor do either the DEQ or the DNR appear eager to initiate such a program.
  3. The state has not prepared careful energy development plans to avoid land use conflicts industrial development may cause in environmentally sensitive regions or in areas used for recreation and tourism.
  4. There has been no effort by the state to invite key stakeholders — citizens, property owners, elected leaders, conservation groups — to participate in the planning and oversight of oil and gas development, as the Science Board strongly recommended.


1. Establishing a process for conducting comprehensive coastal zone inventories

  • The Science Board report states: "The Panel recommends that comprehensive coastal zone environmental inventories be compiled for both Lake Michigan and Lake Huron in order to clearly identify and evaluate, at a minimum, areas that are already impacted with oil and gas development, areas where leases could not be issued for future development, and areas where directional drilling development leases could be allowed provided that such development could be documented as to cause only minimal and mitigable environmental impacts and conflicts to the shoreline."
  • The joint DEQ/DNR press release said: "Inventories currently exist for sensitive environmental features of concern. This includes critical dunes, endangered species habitats, archeological sites, high risk erosion areas, critical fish and wildlife habitat areas, coastal wetlands, and flood-prone areas."
  • Institute assessment: The state’s inventories are not being used effectively as tools to guide energy development along the coast. Moreover, the internal decision-making process is hard for the public to review, yet remains open to the oil and gas industry.

2. Preparing careful energy development plans

  • The Science Board report said: "While technology and science can certainly help to lessen the impacts and even resolve several of the conflicts that may appear, most of these types of issues will require comprehensive environmental planning, communication between all stakeholders, and compromise in order to be resolved." The panel added the comprehensive planning and environmental inventories "should be considered a prerequisite before leasing any of the Great Lakes’ bottomlands."
  • The DEQ/DNR press release said: An "environmental impact assessment already is required in the permitting process," and could be expanded by adding the requirement to coastal mineral leases.
  • Institute assessment: The DEQ/DNR environmental impact assessment is wholly inadequate for determining environmental risks and land use conflicts from coastal energy development. The so-called "assessment" is essentially a standard form filled out by industry staffers and rubber-stamped by state personnel. Moreover, piecemeal environmental assessments do not equal one comprehensive energy development plan that evaluates the cumulative environmental effects and the potential land use conflicts.

3. Public Participation

  • The Science Board report said: "Most of the environmental conflicts could be more readily resolved and the Great Lakes’ aquatic and shoreline environments better protected if the lease agreement required an aggressive environmental impact assessment and stakeholder participation prior to the lease sale."
  • The DEQ/DNR press release said: "The DNR will implement a 30-day public notice and comment period prior to issuing any bottomland leases. Bottomland leases will be noticed on the NRC agenda and all public comments will be taken into consideration prior to granting or rejecting a lease."
  • Institute assessment: The DNR and the DEQ are seeking to maintain the status quo, which is to formulate the policy, float it out for public comment, and then dig in and defend poor decisions. This is utterly inadequate. It is the just the sort of impoverished governing vision that has caused both agencies to lose credibility, and has disrupted the industry’s ability to conduct orderly energy development in Michigan. Meaningful public involvement is just that, a process by which citizens, local government officials, and other interested parties actively participate in the planning process. This is what the Science Board itself meant by full "stakeholder participation."
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