I’ve just published a short article on oil and gas drilling in the Great Lakes - Oil and Freshwater Don’t Mix: Transnational Regulation of Drilling in the Great Lakes, 38 Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review 303 (2011). The article was presented and published as part of a much larger symposium on the BP Gulf oil blowout and the entire symposium issue is available online. Here’s the abstract:
In the wake of the Gulf oil blowout disaster, there is renewed interest in protecting the freshwater of the Great Lakes from the risks of oil drilling. The region has significant oil resources that would be economically and technologically accessible through drilling in the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes bottomlands and shorelines are subject to the regulatory jurisdiction of two countries—the United States and Canada—and eight American states. While the existing legal regime lacks uniformity, and is characterized by jurisdictional inconsistency and potential for transboundary pollution externalities, oil drilling is mostly prohibited. With strong public support for protecting the Great Lakes, there is an opportunity to further strengthen oil drilling regulation in the Great Lakes through international and domestic law.
The article, and the issue of oil and gas drilling in the Great Lakes, is pretty straight forward. Congress addressed the inconsistency under state law by banning new slant, directional, and offshore oil and gas drilling in 2005 (and had temporary bans beginning in 2001). Canada (Ontario) also bans offshore oil drilling, but allows offshore gas wells and directional drilling of oil wells below the Great Lakes. While we continue to struggle with the policy balance of protecting our oceans versus meeting our oil and energy needs, it’s assuring to know that oil drilling in the freshwater Great Lakes is off the table. Still, the United States and Canada should take a consistent approach to this issue. As a start, last summer over twenty members of the U.S. House of Representatives from the Great Lakes states sent a letter to President Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and the International Joint Commission urging a thorough review of this binational issue.
There is also an interesting political back story to the U.S. ban on Great Lakes oil drilling. One of the leading advocates for the federal ban on drilling in the Great Lakes was Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, who is now Chairman of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee. While Chairman Upton has been criticized by environmental groups for his “love for Big Oil”, his floor statements on the first Great Lakes oil drilling ban show a more moderate perspective:
"Some say that this is a safe process, slant drilling. Well, I have to say that I am not convinced that the science, in fact, will protect us. No one has ever suggested that the oil perhaps underneath the Great Lakes is an Arab oil field. It will not provide a lot of oil under anyone’s estimation. So why should we take the risk?
I grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan, and I can remember as a young boy in the 1960s and even into the 1970s there in fact had been an oil spill on the southern shore of Lake Michigan, and I will say virtually every day, every day in St. Joe, Benton Harbor, my hometown and along the southern shore of Lake Michigan, anyone that went to the beach got oil from the sand on themselves. I do not think there was a house along the street that did not have a little bottle of Mr. Clean on the kitchen step, which was the only stuff that would take that oil off our clothes, off our shoes, name it.
That smell of Mr. Clean stays with me from this day, from those summer days of always getting oil on our feet....
This is a Great Lakes watershed area that is not like someplace else. When the oil is there, it stays there and it stays there for a long time. I support this amendment. It is bipartisan. For those of us that have districts along the Great Lakes, I think that all of us, I would hope, would support it. After all, we know our Great Lakes area better than just about anybody else."
At least on this issue, Chairman Upton and some of his Republican colleagues from Michigan seemed to follow the precautionary principle and banned slant drilling under the Great Lakes, despite some scientific and technical evidence that such drilling could be done safely. Is it because the Great Lakes’ freshwater supplies drinking water to millions of citizens and Rep. Upton’s district sits on the shores of Lake Michigan? Or because his personal experience made him skeptical of technological fixes for environmental problems? Or did he simply get on board with the public’s overwhelming opposition to Great Lakes oil drilling? I can only speculate, but whatever the reasons, this issue from a decade ago could provide the environmental community in Washington with some lessons for working with Republicans on common goals.