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MLUI / News & Views / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / Rationale for Reviving the Hydrocarbon Development Plan Approach

Rationale for Reviving the Hydrocarbon Development Plan Approach

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•Then in 1995, the Engler Administration took its most decisive action. It cut the DNR in two, consolidating environmental permitting responsibilities in the newly-created Department of Environmental Quality.The head of the agency, Russell Harding, quickly emerged as the oil and gas industry's strongest champion in government. Mr. Harding sought to accelerate Antrim development by reducing the ability of counties to control erosion from drilling sites, and by weakening a proposed administrative rules package for overseeing drilling. He also issued a formal order asserting that the DNR's authority to manage public lands for energy development is "subservient" to the DEQ.

These initiatives are emblematic of the Engler Administration's overall policy toward the environment and the economy. In almost every way, the Administration has sought to transform environmental protections into industrial development programs by limiting the reach of agencies, diminishing enforcement, and rewriting laws and regulations.

- Industry Leadership Changes -

Dramatic differences since the 1970s also exist in the oil and gas industry.The development of Michigan's Antrim Shale formation is one of the distinctive stories in American energy production.

Almost every other energy reserve in the United States of any significance has been tapped by the major national oil and gas companies. Michigan's Antrim Shale, though, was developed by small companies that took the initiative provided by a federal subsidy to recruit investors and develop the technology to squeeze gas out of dense rock.

The leaders of these companies, organized under the umbrella of the Michigan Oil and Gas Association, tend to be politically strident opponents of regulation, less responsive to public opinion, and fierce advocates for converting public resources to private financial gain. As the Governor's Office ordered the lowering of regulatory barriers, the state's small energy companies went to work on northern Michigan. In 1992 alone, they drilled more than 2,000 Antrim wells.

- A Diffused Environmental Movement -

In the 1970s, the environmental movement was motivated by large, visible threats, like the potential for oil and gas development to undermine the Pigeon River Country.

In the 1980s, the movement's interests broadened to include more technically complex and politically difficult issues -- nuclear waste, toxic chemicals, acid rain, ozone depletion, habitat conservation, and global warming. As the number of issues expanded, individual groups began to specialize. While more groups formed, and environmentalism in Michigan attracted more supporters, it also became much more difficult to focus the overall movement's efforts on a single issue.

Thus in 1988, when Antrim gas development began in earnest, the attention of the state's prominent environmental and conservation organizations was diverted.

It was not until 1990 that the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council joined with the Northeast Michigan Council of Governments (NEMCOG) to produce the first comprehensive study on the damage Antrim development was causing to forests, rivers, and roads in northern Michigan.

In 1992, the environmental response gained strength when Trout Unlimited and Anglers of the Au Sable joined with Michigan Environmental Trust, Ltd., to file an ultimately successful lawsuit that barred energy companies from plowing stream banks to lay pipelines, and increased the spacing among Antrim wells from 40 acres to 80 acres.

In 1994, representatives from Citizens for Alternatives to Chemical Contamination, Trout Unlimited, the Michigan Environmental Council, NEMCOG, and the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council served on a state task force to write new rules to regulate the industry.

Despite the growing interest in Antrim development within the environmental community, even as late as 1994 the various responses were occurring largely in isolation. Groups were not yet coordinating their efforts well. The issue was largely confined to a handful of organizations, many of them based in the northern Lower Peninsula. One unfortunate result was that the message that Antrim gas development was causing extensive harm had not penetrated very deeply into downstate population centers and media markets.

- Less Media Involvement -

The story of Michigan's north woods gas rush is a big and complex one that spreads across ten rural counties. It also is closely tied to the political and economic interests in Lansing and Washington, D.C., that can be difficult to grasp without substantial research.

The development of the Antrim Shale formation came when the state and national media's appetite for environmental stories was changing.

• Environmental journalism had become more difficult as the issues became more complex. Reporters discovered they needed more time to research serious subjects, frame the issues, and write or tell their stories.

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