Spill Dredges Up Great Lakes Drilling Debate

  • The oil spill in the Gulf is stirring up old debates about drilling in the Great Lakes. (Photo courtesy of the USGS)

The Gulf oil spill is churning up an old debate…

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Now that the oil is spreading throughout the Gulf Coast states, some politicians who have called for offshore drilling in the past are being attacked for their stance. Julie Grant reports that one of the Republican candidates for Attorney General in Michigan is being forced to defend a decade-old vote to allow drilling in the Great Lakes.


TER story about Mike Rogers’ effort to block a federal ban on drilling in the Great Lakes


The Michigan Democratic Party has a new online ad.

(sound of the ad)

It starts with photos of the oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. We see fish washed up onshore. And these words appear on screen: “Habitats destroyed, wildlife killed, an economy in ruins.” It continues, “Despite these risks, one man wants to drill for oil in the Great Lakes.”

The ad attacks Bill Schuette, one of the Republicans running for Michigan Attorney General.

“When Mr. Schuette was a state senator here in Michigan, he sponsored and voted for legislation which would have allowed oil drilling in the Great Lakes.”

Mark Brewer is chair of the Michigan Democratic Party.

“We think it’s particularly timely to be reminding the voters of Michigan about this, given the disaster that’s occurring in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Mr. Schuette has responded with an online ad of his own.

(music from Schuette’s ad)

In it, he calls the attempt to connect him with offshore oil drilling in Lake Michigan “pathetic.”

“An attack ad by the Michigan Democratic Party completely distorts my record of safeguarding the Great Lakes. It’s a lie, it’s a complete lie. And they know that it is.”

Well, it’s not a complete lie. According to the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, when Schuette was a state senator in 2001, he sponsored and voted for a bill to allow drilling in Lake Michigan.

Bill Schuette says he never supported drilling in the water, the way BP was doing in the Gulf. In the bill he supported, the oil wells were required to be at least 1,500 feet from the shoreline. This is called directional drilling. The wellheads are actually on land, and the pipelines slant underground, into the rock bed under the water.

“We first made sure we had the strongest, toughest, most stringent regulations that protected the dunes, protected the lake shore, made sure there was no drilling on the lakeshore. Made sure there was no drilling in the lake, itself. And I voted for that bill.”

So, Schuette did vote to allow drilling in Lake Michigan. That was in July, 2001. There was a public outcry when the bill passed. Many people didn’t want drilling in the Lake. In November that same year, the U.S. Congress approved a federal ban on drilling in all of the Great Lakes. Congress wanted better study of the safety concerns. Then, just a few months later, the Michigan legislature revisited the issue. Schuette switched his vote. This time, he voted to ban drilling in Lake Michigan.

There’s now a state and federal ban on drilling in Lake Michigan and the rest of the Great Lakes.

There are some Republicans in Michigan who think drilling should be allowed in the Great Lakes, but the Michigan Democratic Party doesn’t want anyone to reconsider the ban. Chair Mark Brewer says an oil spill even a fraction of the size of what’s happened along the Louisiana Coast would devastate the fragile ecosystems and the struggling economy in Michigan. Brewer says voters should be concerned about who Bill Schuette would serve as attorney general.

“We need somebody who is going to stand up to big oil here in Michigan as our attorney general, not somebody who’s done its bidding over the course of his 25-year career.”

Bill Schuette says he eventually voted to ban all drilling on Lake Michigan because it was the safest way to protect the Lake, and he says he doesn’t support drilling in the Great Lakes today.

Even if he did, he probably couldn’t do much about it right now. Polls show Americans have a growing distaste for offshore drilling.

While there’s a ban on drilling on the U.S. side of the Great Lakes, that’s not the case in Canada. Canada is currently drilling in Lake Erie.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.