It’s a history that dates back to 1997 when then-Michigan Gov. John Engler raised the public’s ire by announcing plans to lift a temporary federal moratorium on leasing state-owned lake bottomlands and open the Great Lakes to new drilling. The move, which would have cleared the way for companies to begin extracting oil and gas from under Lake Michigan, was tabled pending an impacts study, then re-introduced in early 2001.
The Alliance came out swinging, calling for a permanent ban and releasing two reports on the dangers of the practice known as “directional” drilling that would be used to access Lake Michigan’s potential reserves from the shoreline.Armed with statistics showing more than 60 percent of Michigan voters opposed oil and gas exploration under the Great Lakes, the Alliance was instrumental in encouraging Michigan in 2002 to enact a permanent ban on new oil and gas drilling under Lake Michigan, extending a federal ban that would have expired in 2003.
The Alliance ultimately helped secure a bipartisan majority vote by Congress to ban both directional and offshore oil and gas drilling on the Great Lakes in 2002, a temporary ban that Congress made permanent in 2005.
Though operations continue today at a handful of existing directional drilling wells in Michigan that were grandfathered at the time of the state and federal bans, both laws remain on the books – shielding the Great Lakes from the sort of devastating blow oil drilling has dealt the Gulf Coast.
That’s not to say we can relax our vigilance. Producing energy from oil involves more than extraction. It requires refining it using massive amounts of water – which the Great Lakes hold in abundance.
As many of you may remember, concerns about Great Lakes oil refining began coming to a head in spring 2007. The Alliance was the first to assemble a panel of experts and forecast concerns about a little-known BP proposal to expand its Whiting, Ind. oil refinery and up its Lake Michigan discharges of ammonia and suspended solids by 54 percent and 35 percent, respectively.
When the Indiana Department of Environmental Management issued BP a permit for this pollution within about a month of the close of the public comment period – far faster than typical -- the Alliance and regional lawmakers called for a U.S. EPA investigation. The public was galvanized, with more than 100,000 petitioners opposing the expansion, and Congress condemned the permit in a resolution.
In August 2007, the Alliance filed a petition with Indiana's Office of Environmental Adjudication challenging the BP discharge permit, the only such lawsuit seeking to re-open the permit. A week later the saga reached its conclusion when BP announced it would live within the discharge limits of its earlier permit, set in 1990.
Since then we’ve continued monitoring proposed refinery expansions around the Great Lakes in the U.S. and Canada, and have scored key victories. Among them:
• Shell Canada was studying the feasibility of building a new heavy oil refinery near Sarnia, Ontario, capable of producing 150,000 to 250,000 barrels per day of light oil products. In comments to the Canadian government in May 2008, the Alliance described the scope of environmental review necessary for such a project. In July of that year, Shell Canada announced it was abandoning its Sarnia expansion plans.
• In Toledo, BP has an agreement with a Canadian company to expand its refinery and split the profits from processing oil sands. In June 2009, the Alliance called on Ohio to improve controls of toxic discharges from the refinery's wastewater. The final permit issued by Ohio incorporates several of the Alliance’s recommendations, specifically requiring the refinery to conduct additional tests for dioxin pollution and to take steps to minimize it.At the Alliance, we continue to watchdog the Great Lakes in ways that you may not hear about every day. This behind-the-scenes work is the backbone of our effort to enhance the quality of Great Lakes water in the face of evolving energy interests.
For several years now the Alliance has worked with state and local conservation groups to strengthen Indiana’s water quality antidegradation rule -- implicated as partly responsible for the 2007 BP permitting uproar and long overdue for an overhaul. Mandated by the federal Clean Water Act to sets limits to how much new pollution can be discharged to Lake Michigan and other state waterways, Indiana’s newest draft of its rule doesn’t go far enough to protect Lake Michigan.
We’re keeping the pressure on in Indiana and across the basin. Directional exploration for oil and gas under Lake Erie continues in Canada and is causing more jitters than ever in both countries. But victories like those above highlight how critical it is for the Alliance to compel states to enforce the Clean Water Act and other federal laws that demand that pollution in our lakes consistently trends down, not up.
As was true more than a decade ago when the threat of oil and gas drilling knocked on Lake Michigan’s door, we can’t do it alone. And we know we don't have to. As the world watches catastrophe unfold in the Gulf, we're thankful that you continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Alliance to keep our waters safe from harm."