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A Real Drilling: Nasty Party Fight Over Great Lakes Energy

Institute proposal for safe development rejected

June 21, 2001 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Step by step, the Engler administration is determined to allow new drilling for oil and gas beneath the Great Lakes. With each legislative vote and agency decision, the governor and his aides are raising coastal energy development to a top tier political issue that could affect the 2002 Michigan gubernatorial campaign.

A glimpse of how nasty the debate is almost sure to get occurred in early June 2001 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. Governor John Engler promptly replied that Ms. Stabenow’s proposal was “a cheap political trick.”

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 Gov. 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 early June, the Republican-controlled state Senate, on a party-line vote,approved a bill to allow directional drilling beneath the Great Lakes with certain stipulations, including restricting drilling in wetlands and critical sand dunes. The state House has yet to act but some Republican lawmakers are nervous about the political implications. Representative Scott Shackleton, a Republican of Sault Ste. Marie,publicly announced his opposition to the Senate measure and more of his G.O.P. colleagues are likely to follow.

Meanwhile, in mid-June, Democratic Congressional representatives from the Great Lakes region introduced a bill to ban directional drilling pending the conclusion of an environmental study by the National Academy of Sciences.

And in one of the odder political developments, the city council in Grand Haven, which lies along Lake Michigan, passed an ordinance in mid-June to ban directional drilling within city boundaries. Republican state Senator Leon Stille, who represents the city, promptly proposed a bill that would prevent cities that ban directional drilling from receiving revenues from the Natural Resources Trust Fund, a state account derived from oil and gas royalties and used to purchase open space and recreational lands.

Indeed as the political parties square off, Gov. Engler’s resolve to open the shorelines of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron to new energy development grows more firm. On June 13, 2001 an interagency working group of officials from the state Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Natural Resources rejected a comprehensive proposal by the Michigan Land Use Institute to safely manage drilling along the coast.

In dismissing the Institute’s plan, which was solicited by the same state officials, the two agencies were joined by oil industry executives in arguing that the extra safeguards and public involvement the Institute recommended were unnecessary. Mindy Koch, chief of the forest, mineral and fire management division at the DNR, said leasing could begin as early as next spring, and drilling would resume shortly afterwards.

Hans Voss, who led a successful statewide campaign in the 1990s to reform oil and gas policy and is now the Institute’s executive director, told the committee that it was a mistake to overlook reasoned recommendations to improve environmental protection and public safety. Mr. Voss then announced that the Institute opposes drilling beneath the Great Lakes and is marshaling its staff and resources to block energy development along the shoreline.

“There is a real resistance to making sure drilling is done with the highest standards of safety,” said Mr. Voss. “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. Citizens don’t trust the state’s resolve to property manage this industry. And people won’t allow drilling to occur until they feel much more secure.”

The Institute’s proposal included dividing the Great Lakes coast into planning regions, preparing energy development plans for each region, ensuring that drilling only occurs where infrastructure already exists, and appointing a citizen board in each planning region to oversee environmental research and energy development. The Institute modeled its proposals on recommendations by the Michigan Environmental Science Board, a select group of researchers directed by Gov. Engler in 1997 to study the risks and benefits of drilling underneath the Great Lakes.

The Science Board’s study found that the risk of oil or gas leaking into the Great Lakes directly from deep wells was low. However the Science Board also found there was potential for leaks, spills, and other accidents from directionally drilling wells from the shoreline. 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. Since the 1970s, Michigan has approved three oil and gas wells to be directionally drilled beneath Lake Huron and 10 others beneath Lake Michigan. Six are still operating from the coast of Lake Michigan and one along Lake Huron.

The Science Board made a number of sound recommendations to increase the safety of slant drilling including preparing energy development plans and inviting the public and communities to oversee coastal drilling. Only a select number of the Science Board’s recommendations were embraced by the administration. None of the core recommendations was carried out.

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