Expansion of Oil Drilling Threatens Great Lakes, Our Health

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.

Oiled birds, Kalamazoo [Photo by U.S.Fish and Wildife Service Midwest|Flickr]

Oiled birds, Kalamazoo
[Photo by U.S.Fish and Wildife Service|Flickr]

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.

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  • judyms9

    You are so right about this. We can pay higher rates for oil, something we can control our consumption of, or we can pay higher rates for water, something we cannot survive without. I foresee a day when the Great Lakes will have to be the entire nation’s watering hole because other sources of potable drinking water have been ravaged by cracking oil transport lines and fracking for natural gas. Risking our water supply is the most shortsighted and irresponsible thing the Great Lakes states can do.
    Here’s the test: Avoid using gas and oil for a day. Avoid using water for a day.

    • Emma White

      Good point, Judy. And even aside from the cost discussion, there are non-oil options for energy where there is no alternative to water. The Great Lakes are irreplaceable.

  • kirk

    Stop the republicans in their own backyard. I live up north and many are republiicans but they love their environment and their waters.
    I knew this would happen and i do not believe 1600, Perhaps 16000. We must stop this fascist government and kick them all out.

    • Emma White

      It’s true — the Great Lakes are not a partisan issue here. They belong to all of us.

  • Chuck Fellows

    Don’t forget the derivative problem from oil and natural gas exploration/drilling, not to mention the production of chemicals – for all their waste is being injected into the ground (both gravity and high pressure) with very little regulation or monitoring. Waste that will literally come back to haunt the environment and all species.

    We the people once thought we could simply dump our industrial wastes wherever and that nature would take care of it. Now we discover those insults are now causing health and other issues.

    • Emma White

      Absolutely. Fracking is another huge issue here, and it’s not just the toxic chemicals, it’s the huge volume of water being taken out of critical areas like the Au Sable.

  • Rob Ert

    Finally! Someone who believes water is more important than oil for the survival of humanoids on this planet! Thank you Emma White for revealing what I hope is just the beginning of the “Industrial Secrets” of the Great Lakes. First of all, it is the largest amount of fresh water on Earth. Where is the second largest amount? In the Soviet Union! If we screw up the Great Lakes, we can always buy water from Putin. As well as taking chances with drinking water, the aquifer west of the Mississippi is going dry. Twenty or thirty years at best, is all that it will last at the present rate of use. Using the “Search Engines”, I typed in-” Underwater Pipeline , Lake Ontario.” Try it for yourself, it’s not just oil, it’s industrial waste, scores of toxins, all going through a 50 year old pipeline. Just what kind of people would do something like this, and put so much in jeopardy?

    • Emma White

      The Keystone XL threatens the Ogallala Aquifer as well, and it’s all with this terrible tar sands crude that is harder to clean up. :-(

  • Anna

    I was hoping there was some petition the people of Michigan could sign to ban this drilling.

    • Emma White

      Sorry, I don’t know of a petition. :-(

    • Chuck Fellows

      There is pending legislation at the state and federal level. Contact your representative for details.

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