A major oil spill in the Great Lakes would be devastating to Michigan’s natural resources, the health of our citizens, and our economy, and the boom in domestic oil drilling and Canadian tar sands makes such a spill a real possibility. But the potential for this kind of a catastrophe has been almost entirely missing from the national conversation about expanding drilling.
Think about what has happened, just in the Great Lakes region, over the last couple of years:
BP spilled up to 1600 gallons of oil into Lake Michigan last week.
The Kalamazoo River – and the health of people who live near it – still haven’t recovered from the 2010 Enbridge spill into the Kalamazoo river. The river, of course, feeds directly into Lake Michigan.
The same company that caused the Kalamazoo oil spill wants to expand an aging 60-year old pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac to ship in tar sands oil from Canada, a heavier, dirtier, crude oil created by heating the sands to extreme temperatures to melt the oil out.
Tens of millions of people rely on the Great Lakes for drinking water and millions of gallons of oil a day are pumped through pipelines in the region. This is not a good combination, even without getting into the threat to our health posed by air pollution from oil refineries.
Meanwhile, the national conversation about drilling has focused on whether or not expanding domestic drilling will bring down gas prices or improve our national security. The oil companies and their allies in Congress say it will, and advocates who want to stop the rush to drill try to answer this argument by explaining how the international oil market means gas prices won’t change.
They may be right about the lack of impact on gas prices, but environmental advocates have missed a real opportunity in failing to communicate and educate about the harm of drilling. I have found that Americans often assume drilling is safe unless they are given specific evidence of its harm. Polling from the Pew Research Center supports a similar conclusion, with trendlines showing support for offshore oil drilling dropping dramatically after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but rebounding within two years as the public forgot about the harm it caused.
Yes, Americans worry about the price of energy, and they need to know that we have affordable alternatives to oil dependence. But we can communicate on clean energy and efficiency until we are blue in the face, and without giving people a reason NOT to drill, they will just answer (as even the President has) that we should do “all of the above,” by expanding oil drilling at the same time we invest in alternatives. If we want to stop the drilling expansion that threatens our Lakes, our health, and communities across the U.S., we need to make sure that the public knows of the potential harm we are risking, as well as the clean energy path we can take instead.