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Great Lakes Article:

Michigan opposes Erie gas drilling

Lisa Grace Marr
The Hamilton Spectator
02/05/2002
The Ontario government is being roundly criticized by Americans and an opposition critic for its tolerance of the drilling for gas on Lake Erie and the harm they say is being caused to the environment. Last week, the Michigan House of Representatives approved legislation that would ban drilling off of its shores. The move in Michigan is significant because it was the last Great Lakes state to issue a ban; all other Great Lakes states as well as the U.S. federal government have issued moratoriums on drilling.

As it approved the legislation, the Michigan House approved a resolution to encourage Canada to end offshore drilling on its side of Lake Erie.

Then late last week The Hamilton Spectator obtained a report by the Ohio Public Research Interest Group, which gives a blistering description of the Canadian experience with drilling, accusing the Ontario government of lax monitoring systems, poor data keeping and a history of accidents.

Today, MPP and NDP environment critic Marilyn Churley is calling for a moratorium on drilling for new gas wells and storing gas under the lakebed until it is studied properly.

Ontario Environment Minister Elizabeth Witmer could not be reached for comment on the issue due to the death of her father Friday.

The issue over whether or not to drill for gas on the Great Lakes has been percolating in the United States for more than a year, while it has drawn scant attention in Ontario.

Part of that may be due to Ontario's long experience with the issue.

Drilling for natural gas in Lake Erie began more than 75 years ago. Today there are about 550 active wells and miles of pipelines. Drilling for gas takes place in two ways, vertically, from a barge on the lake deep into the lakebed or horizontally, from land underneath the lake into the reservoir.

Here in Ontario, the Ministry of Natural Resources is the regulatory body for the industry, but the Ministry of the Environment receives reports of significant spills to its action centre.

Last fall, the Natural Resources Ministry said it would allow the storage of gas in depleted wells under the lake, but analysts say it's unlikely to happen soon due to economic factors.

Talisman Energy has a monopoly on the Great Lakes gas industry, and it's a small industry at that. Local production only makes up about 2 per cent of consumption in Ontario, but it's a $100 million business, employing about 1,300, and creating spin-off jobs.

But the Ohio group argues that the economic benefits of drilling for gas are far outweighed by the sizable tourism and recreational industries in Ohio. It was that argument that pushed Ohio Governor Bob Taft to reaffirm a ban on drilling on Ohio's south shore last fall. Other Great Lakes States imposed a ban years ago.

Churley said she didn't realize drilling for gas was taking place on Lake Erie until last year when a Michigan state representative called her and asked for her help.

"It's Ontario's dirty little secret," she said. "I tried to research the issue and when I did try with (government ministries), I couldn't find hardly anything. I think we should join the Americans in their study (of gas drilling) or Ontario should do its own."

Churley was alarmed at the lack of available information, particularly between 1995 and 2000, about the industry and its impact on the environment.

"My sense is that everything about drilling for gas on the Great Lakes is being kept secret."

Dirty Drilling, The Threat of Oil and Gas Drilling in Lake Erie, expressed similar concerns. The authors investigated the Canadian experience with drilling as part of their attempt to persuade Ohio to issue a permanent and binding ban on Lake Erie gas drilling.

Bryan Clark, lead author of the report, cited difficulties in finding data, noting that only spills data from 1990 to 1995 was made available to them and that Canada's National Pollutant Release Inventory expressly excludes oil and gas drilling operations from reporting. He also noted that there is no data regarding the quantity or extent of toxic chemical release from natural gas drilling.

Other key findings include:

* There were 51 natural gas spills directly associated with gas drilling in Canada's portion of Lake Erie between 1997 and 2001.

* There were 83 petroleum spills from a variety of sources between 1990 and 1995, and only 45 per cent of the spill's contaminants were cleaned up, on average.

* The long-term discharge of drilling waste in Canada's portion of Lake Erie represents a significant environmental hazard and poses health risks for fish and wildlife.

Rudy Rybansky, chief engineer of the Petroleum Resources Centre of the Ministry of Natural Resources said Saturday he was aware of the report but didn't want to comment until he had a chance to review the report.

However, in an earlier interview, Rybansky said there have been no significant single environmental disasters in the industry's lengthy history, and he did not believe natural gas leaks pose a hazard to the environment.

But Clark disagrees.

"Canadian drilling has been far from problem-free. In point of fact, drilling in Canada's portion of Lake Erie has been an accident-ridden and understudied source of pollution," he said.

OPIRG's report is at www.Ohiopirg.org

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