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Finding Focus and Balance in the Oil & Gas Debate

Oil and gas, DEQ

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

When I was a boy I used to spin around in circles as fast as I could, stop suddenly, then see if I could stay standing. After whirling and falling for hours, I learned that if I really focused,I usually could keep my balance.

After thinking over the many land use conflicts surrounding oil and gas, I again felt my head spinning. With the issues so complex and the views of industry, regulators, and citizens so seeminglycontradictory, would it ever be possible to find a balance? My answer: Yes, but it's going to take a new focus from all sides.

That means state regulators no longer can downplay public concerns. It means the oil andgas industry must become more accountable forits actions. Only then will embittered citizensbe able to regain a sense of trust in a system that many believe has failed them.

The citizens who are raising these legitimate concerns are regular people who have the integrity to stand up for whatis right. They are asking state regulatorsand elected officials to take action to prevent environmental damage and protect theirfamilies from harm.

The oil and gas industry argues that things are fine just the way they are. Executives routinely claim they already are "over-regulated," and point tothe "hundreds of pages" of regulationswith which they must comply.

However, there simply are too many examples of industry indifference and state mismanagement to accept the claim that everything is okay. The issues speak forthemselves:

•Despite strong opposition from residents, the state Department of Environmental Quality continues toput the lives of citizens in danger by allowinggas wells containing deadly hydrogen sulfide gas in populated areas.

•Since the late 1980s, the state has permitted more than 6,000 Antrim Shale gas wells in the northern Lower Peninsula, resulting in fragmented forests, a degraded environment, an undermined outdoor recreation industry, and a diminished quality of life for rural residents. Even the revered Jordan River Valley is being targeted by drillers.

•The state Attorney General is investigating allegations that oil and gas operators have not been fully paying royalties to the public from wells on state-owned land. The loss of income to the Natural Resources Trust Fund, which is endowed by public royalties for the purchase of park lands, could be in the tens of millions of dollars.

•*Michigan law allows energy companies to force property owners into oil and gas drilling operations.

These principles, involving health and safety, the environment, public funds, and property rights, are at the core of a fair and just government's responsibility. At the same time, it makes sense for the state to create a business environment that enables Michigan's oil and gas industry to employ thousands of people and develop a resource we all use.

To establish the needed balance, we must move beyond the conventional "jobs vs. environment" debate and work toward solutions. In many cases oil and gas development can occur without harming the land and threatening public safety. This will only happen with careful planning, citizen involvement, and strong regulatory oversight.

This debate has been underway for years, but the industry and the state have responded with only incremental policy changes. If citizens are going to come close to reaching the balance we arecalling for, now is the time for an intensified effort.

Now is the time for the industry to drop the false claim that stronger regulations will put them out of business. Now is the time for the public to be included in the work toward genuine reform. And now is the time for state officials to step up to their role as public servants, and protect everyone's right to a clean and safe environment.G

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