Air Date: Week of July 25, 1997
In 1972, the United States and Canada signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement that's designed to address the continuing contamination of the Great Lakes Basin ecosystem. The agreement prohibits off-shore oil drilling in all the Great Lakes, but there's another kind of oil drilling going on under the lakes. It's called slant drilling, and some Michigan residents say it's a way to subvert the law. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Wendy Nelson explains.
KNOY: In 1972 the United States and Canada signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. It's designed to address the continuing contamination of the Great Lakes Basin ecosystem, especially by persistent toxic substances. To that end, the agreement prohibits offshore oil drilling in all the Great Lakes. But there's another kind of oil drilling going on under the lakes. It's called slant drilling, and some Michigan residents say it's a way to subvert the law. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Wendy Nelson explains.
NELSON: Slant drilling is the method used when it's impossible to drill straight down to reach a target destination. In this case, oil and gas deposits under Lake Michigan. In slant drilling operators sink a vertical well about a quarter mile upland from the shoreline. It goes down several hundred feet, then angles off diagonally for several thousand more feet to reach its payload. Because it's expensive and complicated, slant drilling isn't the typical way to drill for oil and gas, but it isn't uncommon, either. In fact, there are 7 slant drilling operations now underway beneath Lake Michigan. They began in the 1970s, but nobody seemed to really be paying attention until recently, when New Star Energy applied for permits to drill a pair of new slant wells near Manistee on Lake Michigan's east shore.
CABALA: We've had phone calls from our members and from the public. And no matter where they work, whether they're Democrat or Republican, oil drilling under Lake Michigan evokes a very strong response, and it's negative.
NELSON: Tanya Cabala is with the Lake Michigan Federation, a group that works to protect water quality and habitat. She says the issue has raised concerns about the environmental risks and legality of drilling in the Great Lakes. But Tom Wellman, a geologist with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, says slant drilling is legal, and it won't hurt the environment.
WELLMAN: From the technological perspective, we don't feel that these wells are substantially different than any of the other directionally drilled wells in the state.
NELSON: Tom Wellman says none of the slant wells currently under the Great Lakes has created any contamination problems, and plans for the proposed wells, he says, show they'll run nearly 5,000 feet below the bottom of Lake Michigan. Since there's an impermeable layer of bedrock there, he says it's unlikely a leak would make its way to the water.
WELLMAN: Well, you have to consider that this oil and gas has been under the Great Lakes for many millions of years and has not come to the surface. And there's not a feasible explanation to describe how that's going to happen.
NELSON: Tanya Cabala agrees the danger isn't necessarily under the water. She says the risks would be at the surface haul location on shore.
CABALA: From what we know about oil wells, and production sites, what happens in exploration, what happens in production, there is waste that's generated. It needs to be stored, transported, disposed of, and some of the wastes are in particular hazardous, toxic, and it certainly has the strong potential to harm the shoreline area.
NELSON: Ms. Cabala says leaking or blowouts at surface haul sites could be devastating to shoreline habitat. But state environmental officials say there haven't been any blowouts since the 1950s. And new regulations that require better pipe casings to contain leaks, they contend, provide adequate protection. But adequate isn't good enough for opponents of slant drilling, and they wonder why Michigan officials continue to support the operations when the state would get less than $15,000 the first year the wells are operational. After that royalties are paid on whatever's pumped out of the wells.
NELSON: Seventy-nine-year-old Paul Parks has lived in Grandhaven, Michigan, for most of his life, right here in a lakefront cottage his grandparents bought nearly 100 years ago. Paul Parks says the slant drilling debate really reflects the state's current political agenda. One that, he says, puts business interests ahead of the environment.
PARKS: We're going to have to fight this thing for a long, long time. They've got money, they've got lawyers, they've got lobbyists. And it's going to be a tough, tough battle.
NELSON: The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality plans to make a decision about the newly proposed slant wells in the next few weeks. Few people on either side of the issue believe the applications will be denied, and state environmental officials say several other slant drilling permits are now also being considered. For Living on Earth, I'm Wendy Nelson.
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