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Monday, June 23, 2008

Great Lakes oil drilling an idea to be delved

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

It's easy enough for us flatlanders to favor offshore drilling to increase oil supplies and bring down gasoline prices. But what if the "offshore" we're talking about is drilling in Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes?

Picture drilling rigs in the lake within sight of Chicago and North Shore towns. Imagine oil spills and near-dead, crude-oil-soaked birds flopping about on Oak Street Beach. Imagine the disappearance of smelt and salmon. Imagine poisoned water supplies. Imagine the end of the world.

Well, at least that's the kind of exaggerated rhetoric we'll hear from the East, West and Gulf Coasts in response to proposals by President Bush and the Republican Party's presumptive presidential nominee, John McCain, to lift the federal ban on drilling on America's outer continental shelf. Democratic presidential rival Barack Obama wants to keep the ban.

Neither proposal explicitly calls for drilling in the Great Lakes, and I'm not for raising alarms. But Congress imposed a ban on it a few years ago, and Congress can remove it. Don't think there's no interest in drilling in the Great Lakes. Michigan draws the greatest interest because it (and parts of other Midwest states) is sitting on top of the Niagaran coral reef, believed to be loaded with oil and natural gas reserves. Just under Lake Erie is a trillion cubic feet of natural gas, waiting to be tapped. Politically, the idea might seem dead right off the bat. After all, who would dare violate the health and sanctity of the world's largest body of fresh water?

Canada would. And does. Yes, politically correct Canada, that one. In addition to the Great Lakes, Canada allows offshore drilling in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. (The People's Paradise of Cuba also is eyeing offshore drilling, some of it as close as 45 miles to the Florida coast, using techniques much less environmentally sound than American companies.)

Maybe Obama, in the interests of clean water, thinks he could jawbone Canada and Cuba into giving up those oil and natural gas resources. Michigan has several active wells tapping into the reserves under the lake using "directional drilling," allowing drilling on the diagonal, as it were, reducing chances of an in-water oil spill. (Environmentalists also oppose this technique.) Those wells were grandfathered in before the Great Lakes ban was imposed.

America's outer continental shelf holds some 14 billion barrels of oil and 55 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, which according to Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican and ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, is more than 25 years of Saudi Arabian imports. That's in addition to the uncounted billions of barrels in North American oil shale, which, of course, is being extracted by Canada, but not by the United States.

Is Great Lakes drilling safe? Has it brought alarming and wholesale environmental destruction? A 2002 report by the Public Interest Research Group in Michigan asserted that drilling in Lake Erie has caused 51 natural gas leaks from 1997 to 2001 and 83 oil spills from 1990 to 1995. The group's report, called "Dirty Drilling," called the leaks significant and a threat to wildlife. Canadian authorities dispute the report and call the drilling safe.

Well, not to worry. Nothing will happen. Nothing ever does.

Just a few days ago, a Republican effort to open more costal waters to exploration was defeated on a party-line vote. "We are kidding ourselves if we think we can drill our way out of these problems," pronounced House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.).

Good thinking. With it, Democrats will get creamed in the fall elections.

The American people are smart enough to know that opening up more domestic exploration and production won't bring down prices today or tomorrow. Just as they're smart enough to know that solar and wind power won't do it either. The American people know that the Democratic "Why bother?" reasoning eventually will leave this country in desperate shape.

These environmental die-hards are the same folks who opposed a $3.6-billion expansion of BP's northwestern Indiana oil refinery because it would add capfuls of pollutants to Lake Michigan. Called on their exaggerated claims, they reverted to the petulant argument: It doesn't matter that nothing bad will happen.

No, I'm not advocating drilling in the Great Lakes, at least not yet. There are better offshore coastal alternatives. But on our present course, what will happen is that supply won't keep up with demand, prices will continue to rise to—what?—$5, $6 or more a gallon. The American public will know where to look when figuring out who is to blame.


Anonymous said...

Difference is that the Great Lakes are fresh water and our source of drinking water.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your article on offshore drilling. I am also against offshore drilling.Whats going to happen with more oil?The gas price will go down so that everyone who has suv's hummer's and off shor racing boats in lake Michigan can keep on wasting fuel?Why do we not have wind generators on or near our lake.Is it because no one wants there view spoiled? I would like to put a photo of a dead soldier and a wind generator in millenium park and ask wich one is better viewing.It will take several energy sources to replace oil lets start developing them

Anonymous said...

In Europe, fuel prices have been the equivalent of $6/gallon or greater for years. It does not seem that their society is collapsing or their standard of living particularly suffering.

3% of the world's population (the USA) using 25% of the world's oil is not sustainable. We had better get used to the idea of major changes, and the sooner, the better IMO.

Anonymous said...

I always laugh when anyone,politician or columnist,claims that "the American people are smart enough to know" something. The fact is,to anyone who's not interested in pandering,that the American people are by and large uninformed and uninterested--anyone who thinks that something like this issue will have any effect on the fall elections is really grasping at straws...

Stephen Schade said...

Mr. Byrne:

Clearly, you cannot see the forest for the trees.

The world is running out of oil. Even your proposed solution will only buy us an extra 25 years. In the long term, we need to focus on conservation and alternative energy sources.

Moreover, opening up areas to drilling that are now off-limits will not solve the problem. That is because there is a shortage of petroleum engineers, the people who get the oil out of the ground. Even with an average starting salary of $90,000 a year there are not enough, since there are not enough petroleum engineering professors in the colleges. By the time we have enough of them, the Age of Oil will be over.

Anonymous said...

Place the oil rigs on dry land and use directional boring techniques to get to the reserves so any oil spill happens on land.

As a follow up - make sure these "oil rigs" are drilling for oil and NOT pumping water out of the great lakes and sending it elsewhere. Otherwise the Michigan Militia may rise up and start wrecking havoc on the culprits!