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Wednesday April 11, 2001

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Officials considering more drilling under the Great Lakes

By The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - As President Bush calls for more domestic oil and natural gas drilling, some people are looking to the Great Lakes, the nation's largest supply of freshwater, as a possible power source.

A small amount of oil and gas already is being extracted from seven sites along the Michigan shoreline. The eight Great Lakes states have kept energy companies from digging for more, but Michigan and Ohio officials now are discussing changing their policies.

"The fact is there is an energy shortage out there and the technology is out there," said Lynne Boyd of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. "The time is now."

Environmentalists say the lakes should not be threatened for what could turn out to be a relatively small amount of oil and gas. They say a drilling accident could foul drinking water supplies for millions and disrupt fishing, tourism and other industries.

"We don't need to be causing environmental damage to our Great Lakes for a short-term solution," said Tanya Cabala of the Lake Michigan Federation. "And really it will be the oil companies that will benefit from it, it won't be the people."

The debate over drilling in the Great Lakes is not new, but there are new pressures as Bush warns of an impending energy shortage.

Environmentalists and their friends in Congress strongly oppose the president's plan to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, so the Bush administration has been looking elsewhere. Protected lands in the Rocky Mountains are now under consideration.

Experts believe there are between 5.6 billion and 16 billion barrels of oil under the Alaskan refuge, and perhaps enough natural gas under the Rockies to supply the country for six years.

No one is sure how much is under the Great Lakes.

Since the first well was drilled under Lake Michigan in 1979, only 438,000 barrels of oil and 17.7 billion cubic feet of natural gas have been produced, a fraction of what is produced in the United States each day.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham has not said whether he supports Great Lakes drilling, though he opposed it last year when he campaigned for the Senate in Michigan, where opinion polls show most voters don't like the idea. When asked about it during his confirmation hearing, Abraham would only say it's important to balance energy needs with environmental concerns.

The Great Lakes states - New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota - do not allow drilling from rigs on the water, although Canada allows drilling on its side of Lake Ontario.

It is up to each state to decide whether to allow drilling to reach deposits under the lake from the shore. Michigan is the only state that allows it.

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., has introduced legislation to impose a federal ban on such drilling. But he said the House Republican leadership will not let him have a hearing.

"As the energy crisis increases, there is going to be more and more demand for our lakes," he said. "This is not just federal bureaucrats dealing with this, this is a real issue that has to be resolved."