Even with new procedures being put into place for oil and gas drilling beneath the Great Lakes, the state Department of Environment Quality does not expect any influx of applications from exploration firms.
In the 20 years prior to a 1997 moratorium on leasing of state bottomlands, the DEQ typically saw a handful of permits requested annually and issued a combined 13 permits. That’s not expected to change with a Department of Natural Resources decision to resume the leasing of bottomlands for gas and oil exploration under new regulatory guidelines, DEQ spokesman Ken Silven said.
“It’s not like we’ll get flooded with permit requests,” Silven said.
The DEQ is responsible for reviewing applications and issuing permits to drillers, while the DNR handles the leasing of state bottomlands. Seven drilling operations continue today. Offshore drilling in Michigan waters of the Great Lakes is prohibited.
DNR Director K.J. Cool on Sept. 14 approved new oil and gas leasing procedures that will clear the way for the DEQ to accept and review permit applications to drill beneath the lakes from shore. The decision followed a “comprehensive” review of leasing procedures, Cool said. The regulatory changes follow an earlier report by the Michigan Environmental Review Board that “there is little to no risk” of contamination to Great Lakes water as a result of drilling beneath the lakes that originates from the shore.
“As you know, oil and gas development under the bottomlands of the Great Lakes has been a successful ongoing regulated activity for decades,” Cool told the Michigan Natural Resources Commission at its Sept. 14 meeting.
The new procedures adopted include a required 1,500-foot setback from the water for wells drilled directionally beneath the lakes, as well as for storage and treatment equipment and access roads to well sites. Wells also are prohibited from sensitive coastal environments, as are excavated pits for the disposal of drill cuttings.
Drillers also must screen well sites from the shoreline and public recreation areas.
“Both DEQ and DNR staff are confident that existing laws, rules and procedures will ensure adequate environmental protection of the lakeshore and adjoining areas,” Cool said.
Environmental groups and other opponents of directional drilling beneath the lakes criticized Cool’s decision. A trade association representing the state gas and oil industry and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce applauded it.
“We are firmly convinced that the additional environmental, science-based safeguards established by the DEQ and DNR assure virtually no relative risk to Michigan’s water resources,” said Kevin Korpi, the chamber’s director of environmental and regulatory affairs.
Even when the new procedures are enacted, there’s no guarantee that new drilling will occur. Legislation is now pending in Lansing to ban directional drilling, and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow is pushing a bill in Congress to ban directional drilling in the Great Lakes.
Stabenow’s bill also would require the National Academy of Science and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to complete a study on the potential environmental impacts of drilling in the Great Lakes. Congress could undo the ban if it deems drilling appropriate.