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‘Drill, Baby, Drill’ in the Great Lakes?

One of the annual Great Lakes political rites of late spring is the leadership policy conference on scenic Mackinac Island, the car-less Great Lakes getaway, at which Mackinac’s Grand Hotel, with the longest front porch in the world, is weighed down by 1500 of Detroit and Michigan’s leading business, media, and political figures, along with the odd early presidential aspirant.

This being an election year, the manure being spread by seven Republican and Democratic Michigan gubernatorial hopefuls, along with visiting keynoter and maybe presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, rivaled the piles left by Mackinac’s famous horse-drawn taxis.

An unprecedented (and unlikely to be repeated) bi-partisan gubernatorial debate hosted by the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce saw seven Michigan candidates to replace term-limited (and sand-blasted by Michigan’s auto and economic collapse) Governor Jennifer Granholm deal with a host of hot-button topics.

None was more interesting, given the BP moment, than the question posed by moderator Tim Skupick: “If the Canadians were to start drilling for oil in the Great Lakes, would you try to stop it, and if so, how?” 

The question was not a wild hypothetical. Canadian provinces have been considering exploiting more of the significant gas and oil deposits under the Great Lakes. Drilling has been done on land for years. Drilling in the Lakes has been episodically proposed by various states, and most recently, Canadian provinces. Michigan’s legislature was moved in 2002 to ban Great Lakes drilling, and pushed a federal law in 2005, as proposals for “slant drilling”--getting at oil and gas under Michigan proper--from “out at sea” in the Great Lakes were seriously being pursued.

Michigan straddles almost 4,000 of the 10,000 miles of Great Lakes frontage; but eight other states and two Canadian provinces—including leading metros like Chicago, Milwaukee, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Toronto to smaller Duluth, Green Bay, and Traverse City--share the same waterfront real estate.

Given the Gulf-induced drilling backlash--all the candidates--Republicans and Democrats --groped to outdo each other in demonstrating their zeal to prevent such a thing with varying degrees of credibility given Canada is a sovereign nation and a lack of clarity concerning what, if anything, a governor could do.

Some of the answers: “I’d fly to Ottawa; I’d phone the premier of Quebec; I’d lobby the Obama administration to stop it; a governor can’t do anything, but I’d try.”

At a moment when the nation is just beginning to pour serious dollars into cleaning the Great Lakes, repairing damage done by the prior carbon-fueled industrial era’s water abuse; and prompted in no small part by our work demonstrating the huge economic importance of clean Great Lakes to the long-term economic revitalization of these industrial metros, there have been some ironic recent twists in the political winds.

Prior to the Gulf BP disaster,  not only was Great Lakes drilling once again sneaking up as a real and potentially “needed” economic opportunity (albeit with Canadians as the stalking horse), but Michigan just gained an unprecedented windfall to maintain its once crown jewel state parks system from the latest round of oil and gas leases that are routinely auctioned. Michigan’s park system, like a lot of Michigan, has been decimated by 10 years of economic and state budget collapse, leading to deferred maintenance and park budget cuts.  The recent round of land-based oil and gas exploration leases earned a surprise $178 million for the parks trust fund--almost as much as the $190 million total netted since the program began in 1929.

Making a choice in the Great Lakes devil’s bargain between long-term economic gain by capitalizing on its spectacular freshwater coast as a place-defining, people attracting magnet or exploiting the rich resources that lie below the Great Lakes, and maybe wrecking the place again, will be held at bay due to the BP moment. But the underlying tensions and Faustian political choice remains.