Engler Backs Directional Drilling Not Offshore Wells

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LANSING — Gov. John Engler says he opposes offshore drilling for oil, but considers onshore wells that could tap oil from under the lakes is another matter entirely.

"I'm opposed to (offshore) drilling in the Great Lakes, and we fully intend to enforce the law," Gov. John Engler said in a interview last week.

However, he said that directional drilling is completely different and has "no viable risk" to the Great Lakes. That's because the drilling occurs thousands of feet under the lake.

In directional drilling, drilling rigs work on land and drills are angled under the lakes, where the oil is located.

"I think a reasonable exploration of oil and gas resource is important, especially at a time when energy prices are rising," Engler said.

Seven wells in Michigan are operating under the Great Lakes, five of those in Manistee County. The others are in Bay County.

"Michigan has had a very safe oil and gas industry," said Mindy Koch, the Department of Environmental Quality land and mineral services chief.

Energy companies received the first bottomland leases for directional drilling in 1945 and stopped in 1997, when the state government ordered the Michigan Environmental Sciences Board to evaluate the drilling program, Koch said. The board looked at drilling near the sensitive shoreline areas such as dunes and wetlands and concluded that directional drilling isn't an environmental concern.

"Our recommendation for statewide and directional drilling under the Great Lakes is proven to be safe," Koch said.

The directional-drilling safety regulations of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality currently place well heads 1,500 feet away from the shoreline. The rules ban drilling along sensitive shoreline areas. The disposal of drilling muds and wastes is banned at the well heads and on the Great Lakes shorelines. Also, wells must not be visible from the lakeshore or any nearby parks.

"(Engler) feels Michigan has some of the toughest rules and regulations dealing with directional drilling," said Susan Shafer, the acting press secretary for the governor.

Not everyone shares the same opinion.

"I think the idea of oil and gas exploration in Lake Michigan, in the same breath, evokes a strong response of people who just don't want to risk any damage to the lake," said Tanya Cabala, the land and water conservation coordinator and Michigan director of the Lake Michigan Federation.

She said she doesn't trust that the state will take the safety regulations seriously. "We're not convinced," said Cabala, who said it's not worth risking Lake Michigan.

Her main concern doesn't stem from the well itself but rather the additional drilling on the coastline. She said any leaks or spills from oil storage or transport may cause strong risks of ground water contamination.

"It doesn't take much oil to cause problems," Cabala said.  She claims a quart of oil can contaminate up to two million gallons of drinking watermand four quarts can create an 8-acre oil slick.

"We need to take a proactive approach to protecting our Great Lakes," said Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus in a separate interview. "We need to take a scientific approach." He said directional drilling decisions should be based on sound science and not on politics, because it's a sensitive issue.

Sen. Walter North, R-St. Ignace, said he's opposed to directional drilling — for now at least — because 12 of his district's 14 counties lie along the Great Lakes. He said there's always a concern about water contamination.

"Conditions change and times change," North said. "Directional drilling may make sense down the road."

Recent Articles by Christina Stolarz, Capital News Service

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