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At MERC Meetings, All Sides Debate The Issues

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

Nearly 1,100 people attended four MERC-sponsored public meetings last summer to learn about proposed state laws that would improve the oversight of Michigan's oil and gas industry.

The meetings, held in Oakland, Antrim, Montmorency, and Manistee counties, attracted standing room only crowds. They explored the need for energy reform bills now under consideration in the Legislature. Participating in the discussion were lawmakers carrying the bills, local government officials, citizens' advocates, and representatives of the oil and gas industry.

Representative Bill Bobier (R-Hesperia), a co-sponsor of the legislative package, attended the meetings in Montmorency and Manistee counties. He said that oil and gas development is receiving more attention at the Capitol than at any time since the 1970s, when a struggle broke out over drilling for oil in the Pigeon River Country State Forest.

The package of bills would:

* Give property owners who don't own their mineral rights more power to decide how their land is used.

* Provide local governments with the authority to oversee some aspects of oil and gas development.

* Give the state the authority to prevent energy development in sensitive ecosystems.

The public meetings on the energy reform legislation were supported by grants from The Frey Foundation and The Borwell Charitable Foundation.

The Michigan Energy Reform Coalition works for oil and gas development practices that are more sensitive to citizens, communities, and the environment.

MERC now is composed of six townships and 15 organizations representing more than 200,000 state residents.

Specifically, the project's goals are to:

* Increase economic returns to local governments in the drilling areas by establishing a non-renewable energy fee on producers, modeled after similar programs in other states.

* Protect Michigan's rivers, streams, and lakes by requiring the oil and gas industry to prepare hydrocarbon development plans before new wells are drilled.

* Reduce noise and other nuisances.

* Help mineral owners write leases that provide them with the best income and protection for the land. * Provide severed rights property owners with greater authority to decide how their land is used.

MERC is achieving these goals by:

* Conducting research on all aspects of oil and gas development in Michigan.

* Seeking partnership and cooperation with the oil and gas industry.

* Forming alliances with local government leaders.

* Bringing statewide community and environmental organizations into the project. * Preparing testimony and appearing at legislative hearings where energy development policy is decided. * Encouraging newspaper, magazine, radio, and television coverage of the issues.

* Conducting a public education program, including publishing the Great Lakes Bulletin and holding workshops.

Nearly two years after MERC was organized, managing oil and gas development is now among the most visible environmental and economic issues in Michigan. MERC is seen as a reliable source of information, as well as a credible advocate for responsible changes in public policy.


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