Prior to the ban, this derrick, which operated near the shore of Lake Michigan in Muskegon, safely extracted oil from beneath the lake through a directional pipeline running under a multi-million dollar residential development.
Perhaps it takes $4 a gallon gasoline to restore reason to U.S.
energy policy. President Bush has called on Congress to lift the ban on
off-shore drilling for oil and gas. Recent national polling indicates that
consumers struggling with higher costs for food and energy have shifted their
opinion — a majority now supports the development of offshore oil and gas
reserves. This change in public opinion presents an opportune time to reconsider
directional drilling for oil and natural gas under the Great Lakes, which was
prohibited by state law in 2002 and by federal law in 2005.
Forbidding directional drilling was bad energy policy then and
it’s bad energy policy now. Based on an analysis prepared by the Senate Fiscal
Agency in 2002, continuing the practice would have resulted in an economic
benefit to the state of approximately $1 billion. Adjusted for the price of oil
today, the economic benefit of tapping Michigan’s Great Lakes reserves would be
$3 billion to $4 billion.
State geologists estimate that approximately 30 wells could be
directionally drilled under the Great Lakes. Directional drilling, sometimes
referred to as slant drilling, is performed at an angle, allowing placement of
the well head onshore rather than on a drilling platform in the lake. While
director of the Department of Environmental Quality in 1996, I was approached by
companies interested in exploring for oil and gas under the Great Lakes. I asked
the Michigan Environmental Science Board (a group of scientists, mostly from
universities, with environmental and natural resource expertise) to study
whether directional drilling under the Great Lakes posed any threat to natural
The Board concluded: "[T]here is little to no risk of
contamination to the Great Lakes bottom or waters through releases directly
above the bottom hole portion of directionally drilled wells." The Board went on
to say: "There is, however, a small risk of contamination at the well head." The
board made recommendations on steps that could be taken to mitigate any impact
to the Great Lakes from the well head, including locating the wells at least
1,000 feet from the shoreline and implementing proper waste disposal measures.
Before the ban, eight wells had been directionally drilled under the Great Lakes
without environmental harm.
Even though environmental safeguards recommended by the Michigan
Environmental Science Board were put in place, the Michigan Legislature still
voted to ban directional drilling under the Great Lakes. The day before the
vote, I received a call from a state senator who apologized in advance for
voting for the ban. He acknowledged that directional drilling posed no real
environmental threat, but told me that it was the right "political vote."
Unfortunately, such actions are all too common among state and federal
legislators who would rather reap the short-term perceived political benefit of
appearing "green" without taking responsibility for the long-term damage done to
energy supply and jobs.
No matter how bullish one might be about alternative energy,
experts agree that we will be dependent on oil to meet our nation’s
transportation and energy needs for many years to come. Our leaders in
Washington and Lansing should encourage the responsible development of our
abundant oil and natural gas reserves by eliminating arbitrary road blocks such
as the ban on directional drilling. By doing so, they would display a sincere
attempt at meeting the nation’s energy needs while providing a much needed boost
to the state’s lagging economy. Additionally, our state leaders should reject
the worn-out argument that Michigan does not have enough untapped oil and gas to
make a difference — a reasoning that if followed ensures higher energy costs
into the foreseeable future a permanent energy stalemate.
Russ Harding is director of the Property Rights Network and
senior environmental analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a
research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich.
Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the
author and the Center are properly cited.