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Great Lakes Oil and Gas Drilling Roils Michigan Politics
M.A. Engle
Capital Eye

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.

- M.A. Engle


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