Lakes Oil and Gas Drilling Roils Michigan Politics
It's not just
Washington that's coming to blows over energy issues.
A possible treasure trove of oil and gas under the Great
Lakes has created a political showdown in Michigan. On
one side are those who want to extract the rich deposits
from the Great Lakes' bottomlands; on the other are those
who want to protect the lakes, which contain nearly one-fifth
of the Earth's fresh surface water and provide drinking
water for some 30 million people.
Only one Great
Lakes state now has drills operating and is actively considering
allowing new drilling - Michigan. And, in Michigan, anything
that threatens the lakes is a classic hot potato that
politicians handle very carefully - especially when an
election is on the horizon. In 1998, when Governor John
Engler (R) was up for re-election, he ordered a temporary
moratorium on new drilling. But in 2001, term-limited
and barred from running again, Engler has thrown his support
behind renewed drilling on the Great Lakes.
In a split from
Engler's policy, the No. 2 man in his administration,
Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus, came out against drilling in
July, telling Michigan reporters, "The risks [of drilling]
are relatively few, but the benefits are even fewer."
Posthumus is expected
to be the Republican candidate for governor in 2002. Four
of the five top Democratic contenders for Michigan governor
in 2002 are opposed to Great Lakes drilling.
Oil and gas extraction
from the Great Lakes does not poll well with Michigan
voters. In a statewide survey conducted in February, opposition
to drilling ran as high as 59 percent. Support was as
low as 27 percent. Opposition was fairly consistent across
the state and among all kinds of voters.
The issue is hot
enough to radiate as far as Washington, and to push people
across party lines. When the U.S. House of Representatives
approved a proposal to prohibit the Army Corps of Engineers
from issuing new drilling permits in June, all nine Michigan
Democrats and four of the seven Michigan Republicans in
the House voted for it. In July, the U.S. Senate passed
a two-year drilling ban unanimously on a voice vote.
When the 1998
moratorium on drilling went into effect, the existing
wells were allowed to continue to operate, and there are
now seven such working sites in Michigan. They tap oil
as well as natural gas reserves via on-shore "slant" or
"directional" wells, and have provided more than $16 million
in revenue to the state treasury.
The drilling question
bounced through the Michigan legislature, which has a
Republican majority in both houses, during the first half
of this year. After several attempts to control it legislatively,
lawmakers punted, returning the controversial issue back
to the governor.
According to the
National Institute on Money in State Politics, which studies
campaign financing in state elections, the resource development
sector accounted for 3 percent of all contributions to
candidates for state offices in Michigan in the 1998 election
cycle, with $1.3 million total. Roughly 69 percent went
to Republicans. The oil and gas industry accounted for
$486,789 or 38 percent of the sector's total. In 1996,
resource development sector gave $571,067 (4.4 percent
of all contributions), of which $303,630 came from the
oil and gas industry. Fifty-seven percent of the sector
total went to Republican candidates.
Groups and individuals
associated with environmental protection gave $2,862 (70
percent to Democrats) in 1996, and $7,185 in 1998 (100
percent to Democrats).
The drilling debate
is reverberating across the upper Midwest. In May, Wisconsin
Attorney General Jim Doyle said he hoped his state would
join other Great Lakes states in opposing drilling and
present a united front against Michigan. Wisconsin Gov.
Scott McCallum (R) issued a statement this spring saying
he thought drilling was a bad idea. Ohio Governor Bob
Taft (R) has come out against drilling, and New York Gov.
George E. Pataki (R) has expressed "reservations and concerns."
Ohio and New York border Lake Erie; which, according to
some reports, has particularly rich reserves of natural
gas in its bottomlands.