Michigan governor set to approve Great Lakes drilling

Published July 1, 2001

Following a recommendation by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR), Michigan Governor John Engler is preparing to lift oil drilling restrictions on Lake Michigan and Lake Huron he imposed in 1997. Although MDNR studies show Great Lakes drilling would pose no threat to the lakes themselves, the environmentalist lobby is preparing to launch a political offensive against the governor’s imminent decision.

The eight Great Lakes states ban drilling from platforms on the lakes themselves, but the Michigan plan calls for land-based wells drilling at an angle beneath the lakes to access oil and natural gas reserves close to shore. According to MDNR, modern technology assures there is little or no risk of a spill from the proposed drilling. Even if such a spill were to occur, the small risk would be confined to the onshore well-head. There would be no risk of a spill affecting the lakes themselves.

“We still have a tremendous need for energy and we have to tap available resources,” stated Ken Silfven, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Opponents argue the energy reserves are not sufficient to justify the risk. Stated Michigan Democratic State Senator Gary Peters, “Whatever the risks are, they’re just not worth it. We’re not sitting on a North Sea oil supply here. It would have no impact whatsoever on the price people pay for gas at the pump or for fuel to heat their homes.”

Before Engler imposed the 1997 drilling restrictions, 13 directional wells were drilled along the Michigan shore. Seven of the wells are still producing oil and gas. Engler cited environmental concerns as motivating his restrictions, and he asked that a board of environmental advisors study the environmental impact of drilling. With the board concluding that directional drilling poses little risk of a spill and no risk to the lakes themselves, Engler is now ready to lift his drilling restrictions.

According to Silfven, politics rather than science is driving the drilling debate. Environmentalists, claim Silfven, are following a zero-drilling policy that flies in the face of scientific data. He argues well leases have actually been environmentally friendly, providing $15 million in funds the state uses to buy and maintain parks. Silfven foresees $100 million in additional state revenue once Engler lifts his drilling restrictions.

Opposition to the governor’s decision is also being mounted in the U.S. Congress, where Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Michigan) has said he will attach amendments banning Great Lakes drilling to any legislation seeking to allow new drilling in the Gulf of Mexico or Alaska. Stupak argues the enormous energy reserves in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge dwarf the Great Lakes reserves and should be tapped before any thought is given to Great Lakes drilling.