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Published: Friday, 1/10/2003

Governor to ban Lake Erie drilling

BY JIM DREW
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF
Offshore-drilling platforms operate on the Canadian side of Lake Erie. The eight Great Lakes states prohibit them. Offshore-drilling platforms operate on the Canadian side of Lake Erie. The eight Great Lakes states prohibit them.
TALISMAN Enlarge

COLUMBUS - Gov. Bob Taft said yesterday he will sign an executive order to ban oil and natural gas drilling in state waters of Lake Erie.

Mr. Taft, a Republican scheduled to be sworn in Monday to a second four-year term, said he consistently has opposed drilling in the lake because of environmental concerns.

“My statement all along has been, `No drilling,'” he said.

Mr. Taft made his comments on the same day an environmental group released a report that accuses him of starting “official consideration” of Lake Erie drilling as early as December, 2000.

Proposals to allow drilling for oil and natural gas in the Ohio waters of Lake Erie flared up during the winter of 2000-2001 when natural gas prices spiked and President Bush called for an increase in domestic drilling.

Citing public documents received from the state, the Ohio Public Interest Research Group said the state Department of Natural Resources appeared to support drilling in a Jan. 10, 2001, memo.

Listing eight pros and three cons to drilling, DNR official Tom Tugend wrote: “At a minimum, directional drilling could be encouraged.... Reasonable permit conditions can be placed on directional drilling that would virtually eliminate threat to the lake.”

Directional drilling, also referred to as slant drilling, is usually preferred in environmentally sensitive areas because the well is drilled from land instead of from rigs.

Mr. Tugend's 2001 memo to Department of Natural Resources Director Sam Speck said the state would need at least $250,000 for an “extensive [public relations] package” to convince the public that drilling would not jeopardize the environment.

Bryan Clark, a lobbyist for the Ohio public research group and author of the report titled “Lake Erie Drilling: The Untold Story,” said Mr. Tugend's memo - combined with other documents - appears to show a bias in favor of drilling in the upper ranks of the Department of Natural Resources.

“All of the data was based on information from companies or government agencies that support drilling and was simply accepted without context or question,” Mr. Clark said.

Mr. Taft, however, said yesterday that his administration never considered allowing drilling for oil and natural gas in state waters of Lake Erie. He said he merely asked DNR for information in December, 2000.

Jim Lynch, a DNR spokesman, lashed out at Mr. Clark's charges. “This might be a good fund-raiser for PIRG, but this issue has been dead for years. Ohio, compared to other states, consistently has said no for 20 years on drilling. In the last 10 years, I have heard no one in DNR advocate for drilling in Lake Erie,” Mr. Lynch said.

Mr. Clark accused department officials of misleading the public about whether companies were interested in oil and gas drilling and whether the state considered giving them approval.

Although Mr. Taft told The Blade in April, 2001, that he was opposed to directional drilling beneath Lake Erie, he did not take any official action, Mr. Clark said.

In an April 12, 2001, letter to then-Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner, Mr. Speck wrote that companies were interested in “oil and gas drilling” in the central basin of Lake Erie. A month earlier, Mr. Finkbeiner had assailed the oil and gas industry for even thinking about drilling beneath Lake Erie.

Mr. Speck wrote: “While the governor has announced his firm opposition to development of state oil and gas resources beneath the lake, the department will continue to track resource development in Ontario. Access to mineral resources on state lands will remain a legitimate issue, that should be evaluated objectively and scientifically....”

The eight Great Lakes states have agreed not to allow drilling from rigs on the water. Michigan is the only state that has allowed directional drilling. Canada is the only place where offshore drilling is allowed in the lakes. Ontario has allowed 2,500 gas wells beneath the Canadian side of Lake Erie since the early 1900s. The Ontario Petroleum Institute has said 500 are still in production, with 20 new wells drilled a year.

On April 28, 2001, Bob Stevenson, Toledo's commissioner of water-treatment services, sent an e-mail to DNR inquiring about why the state might consider oil and gas drilling in Lake Erie.

Mr. Tugend replied: “Currently, in Ohio, there are no requests to drill in Ohio's portion of the lake. “

Mr. Clark charged that DNR “misled” Mr. Stevenson by “obscuring the very real interest in drilling expressed in the agency's own research and reports....”

In a June 25, 2002, letter to a citizen who had expressed concern about drilling, Mr. Speck wrote: “At this time, however, there are no active proposals to drill in the Ohio side of Lake Erie.”

Mr. Clark said Mr. Speck's statement was “technically true” because there were no pending leases or proposed rules, but he should have told the citizen that businesses were interested in Lake Erie drilling.

State public records show that at least four companies - including Canadian-based Talisman Energy and Vadose Research in Canton - have attempted since 1998 to gain access to Lake Erie for drilling, Mr. Clark said.

Yesterday, Mr. Clark said he welcomed Mr. Taft's announcement that he would sign an executive order to ban oil and natural gas drilling in state waters of Lake Erie.

But Mr. Clark said the Ohio General Assembly still needs to put a ban into Ohio law. Mr. Taft's executive order would expire when he leaves office in 2007 because of term limits.

“At every stage of the drilling process the environment around the drilling site is bombarded by toxic chemicals and threatened by accidental leaks and spills,” Mr. Clark wrote.

But Bill Ullom, president of Vadose Research, a Canton-based environmental consulting firm, said there was no scientific basis for Mr. Taft's decision.

“I think it is a waste of the state's resources. We have come a long way in the last 50-plus or minus years in technology to be able to recover oil and gas from remote locations without creating an environmental disaster,” Mr. Ullom said.

House Minority Leader Chris Redfern (D., Catawba Island) plans to re-introduce a bill next week to ban drilling. His bill last session died in committee. “There's nothing barring a future governor from undoing an executive order,” he said.



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