The Michigan Legislature voted recently to ban new oil and gas drilling under the Great Lakes. Until the ban was enacted, Michigan had been the only state considering to allow such drilling. As the nation heads into a new round of federal, state, and local elections, Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator Cameron Davis says that the region’s drilling debate provides some invaluable lessons for candidates:
The Michigan legislature voted recently to ban new oil and gas drilling under the Great Lakes. Until now, it had been the major holdout on such a ban. As the nation heads into a new round of federal, state, and local elections, Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator Cameron Davis says that the region’s drilling debate provides some invaluable lessons for candidates.
The first lesson to our future leaders is to beware of one element of news “spin”- that if you repeat something long enough it will become true. In pressing their case, oil and gas interests said that drilling would not result in oil bubbling up to pollute Great Lakes water. As a result, they repeated, drilling was quote -“safe.” They failed to listen, however, to citizens troubled by something different: oil and toxic hydrogen sulfide leaks on land that could put human health and fragile coasts at risk. Given the small amount of oil and gas below the lakes, citizens said drilling wasn’t worth it. So, we get to lesson number one: Our future leaders should define public safety and environmental health broadly, not so narrowly that they gloss over legitimate concerns.
Lesson number 2: the debate was as much about the need for states to be credible leaders in natural resource protection as it was about drilling itself. The Lake Michigan Federation looked at 30 active wells in Michigan and found that eight of them had in fact contaminated water supplies. According to the same research, state oversight continues to fail in the clean up of any of those sites. In the drilling debate, citizens believed that without responsive agency action, the only way to prevent similar damage from shoreline drilling was to prohibit the practice in the first place. Congress responded to citizens’ concerns over the summer by suspending new drilling for two years. Candidates can take away from this that if states don’t want Congress stepping on their toes, they need to do a credible job themselves of protecting the Great Lakes.
Last, pro-drilling interests argued during the debate that other serious challenges besides drilling deserved more attention. While concerned citizens believed that a drilling ban was the best way to prevent new shoreline damage, advocates also agree that a number of other important threats need to be addressed. The third moral of the story is that people’s interest in protecting the Great Lakes environment from drilling is the beginning, not the end.
It’s time to move onto other pressing threats such as harmful water diversions in an increasingly thirsty world. We need to prevent future invasions of foreign pest species like the zebra mussel that throw the multi-billion dollar Great Lakes fishery out of whack. With women of childbearing age and other sensitive populations unable to eat certain fish because of contamination, it’s time to eliminate cancer-causing and other pollution once and for all. And, it’s time to restore fish and wildlife habitat, including the region’s precious wetlands, forests, and sand dunes.
Voters love the Great Lakes. Because of that, whoever commits first in upcoming elections to protect them, wins.