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Plan Very Carefully Before Drilling Beneath the Great Lakes

Science board issues recommendation

September 1, 1997 | By Hans Voss
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Last fall, in the midst of widespread public protest over proposed oil exploration under Lake Michigan, Gov. John Engler directed the Michigan Environmental Science Board to evaluate the risks of directional drilling beneath the Great Lakes. The panel of scientists responded by issuing the most complete and clear- headed approach to developing energy reserves in environmentally sensitive areas that the state has seen since the historic Pigeon River Country Hydrocarbon Development Plan nearly 20 years ago.

Despite the Engler Administration's initial commitment to "move swiftly to implement the science panel's key recommendations" and a Senate Resolution supporting the Science Board's findings, the state has quietly backed away from the report's most important provisions. Most notably, the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Natural Resources have ignored the Science Board's recommendations for comprehensive coastal planning and for expanding public involvement.

At a December meeting in Lansing with DNR director K.L. Cool and DEQ director Russell Harding, representatives of the Michigan Land Use Institute and four other citizens groups joined two members of the Science Board in urging the agencies to implement substantial reforms to the oversight of coastal drilling. While neither Mr. Cool nor Mr. Harding seemed eager to change current policies, they agreed to hold additional meetings with citizens groups to further discuss the issue.

It would be in the state's best interest to abide by the Science Board's recommendations. By taking the time to work with citizens and public interest advocates, the Engler Administration would be respectfully acknowledging the public's concern for the Great Lakes. And once in place, the framework crafted by Michigan's top scientists would establish a new standard for balancing energy development with environmental protection.

The State of Michigan legally controls the Great Lake bottom lands from the Michigan shoreline to the center of the lakes. While state law prohibits off-shore drilling, Michigan allows wells to be drilled directionally from the shore to access oil and gas beneath the lakes. According to the DEQ, 12 such wells have been drilled under lakes Huron and Michigan since 1985.

Public interest in this issue took off last July after the DEQ authorized a Canadian company, Newstar Energy USA, to drill an onshore well near Manistee to extract oil and gas 4,000 feet below Lake Michigan and up to one-half 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. Gov. Engler responded by halting Newstar's pending permit applications, and ordering an evaluation from the Science Board, a panel of scientists he formed to assist him on environmental matters.

The Board's review found that the risk of oil leaking directly into the Great Lakes was minimal, since more than 2,000 feet of impermeable bedrock separates the well hole and the sand underlying the lakes. The scientists considered the land use conflicts associated with industrial development along the shoreline as the greatest risk, and called on state regulators to take the following actions before minerals under the Great Lakes are leased:

• Prepare an "aggressive" environmental impact study.

• Conduct "comprehensive planning and environmental inventories."

• Invite the public and local governments to participate in a planning process to decide where drilling is appropriate, and where it is not.

Dr. William E. Cooper, a Michigan State University professor who served on the Science Board's Directional Drilling Panel, emphasized the importance of expanding public involvement in the planning process.

"You can't solve the land use conflicts without the stakeholders at the table," Dr. Cooper said, "You have to include the community."

Yet it is this recommendation that has met with the most resistance from the DEQ and the DNR, whose leaders have indicated they prefer to handle the issue of drilling under the Great Lakes internally.

From the agencies' point of view this is somewhat understandable. 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 great coastal ecosystems in the world, state policy makers must take the time, forethought, and care to do it right, or not at all.

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