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Great Lakes Drilling Shifts Political Winds

August 1, 2001 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

More than a year before the polls open, Michigan’s 2002 race for governor is off to an intriguing start as public concern over Great Lakes drilling shifts the prevailing political winds.

Democrats have seized on the issue as a way to focus public attention on what they view as the development-at-any-cost environmental policies of Governor John Engler and the Republican right wing. Mr. Engler and his supporters in the oil and gas industry return fire by asserting that slant drilling beneath the Great Lakes is safe and that Democrats are misleading the public about the threat.

In the meantime, Republican stalwarts, caught between opinion polls and the party line, are siding with the Democrats.

Switching sides
The public caught a glimpse in early June of how nasty the debate is almost sure to become when Democratic U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow called for a federal ban on drilling beneath the Great Lakes, saying it wasn’t worth the risk. Gov. Engler promptly replied that Ms. Stabenow’s proposal was “a cheap political trick.” Ms. Stabenow paid no attention and in July convinced the Senate to approve a measure that blocks any drilling for at least two years.

A month earlier, the U.S. House passed its own measure to ban new drilling under the Great Lakes and recognize the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ authority over such activity, a move that challenges the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s power. One of Gov. Engler’s strict Republican colleagues, Representative Peter Hoekstra of Holland, was among those voting by a wide margin in support of the bill sponsored by another Michigan Congressman, Representative David Bonior, a Democratic candidate for governor in the 2002 race.

Back home in Lansing, Gov. Engler has gamely tried to hold his party together. In early June, the Republican-controlled state Senate approved a bill on a party-line vote to allow limited directional drilling beneath the Great Lakes.

But some Republican lawmakers in the state House did not stick to the game plan. Representative Scott Shackleton, a Republican from Sault Ste. Marie, announced his opposition to the state Senate’s measure. Several more GOP House members followed his lead. A House-Senate conference committee later rejected the Senate’s directional drilling bill.

Science fiction
Yet the Engler administration continues its push to end a three-year moratorium and open the shorelines of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron to new energy development despite trouble signs on the political horizon and its own “sound science.”

On June 13 an interagency working group of officials from the state Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Natural Resources formally rejected a comprehensive proposal by the Michigan Land Use Institute to safely manage drilling along the coast. The Institute modeled its proposals on recommendations from the Michigan Environmental Science Board, a select group of researchers that Gov. Engler directed in 1997 to study the risks and benefits of drilling underneath the Great Lakes.

“The state and the industry are making a strategic mistake by thinking they can just go out there, lease bottomlands, and put up a bunch of new drilling rigs along the coast of Lake Michigan or Lake Huron,” said Hans Voss, the Institute’s executive director. “Citizens don’t trust the state’s resolve to properly manage this industry. And people won’t allow drilling to occur until they feel much more secure.”PC, KS

CONTACT(S): Mindy Koch, Department of Natural Resources, 517-373-1246; Hans Voss, Michigan Land Use Institute, 231-882-4723 ext. 12, <hans@mlui.org>; Ken Silfven, Department of Environmental Quality, 517-241-7397.

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