A producing oil well directionally drilled under Lake Michigan near Manistee, Michigan.  The state banned new directional drilling operations under the Great Lakes in 2002 and Congress banned all new oil and gas wells in and under the Great Lakes in 2005.

What are the odds of a major ecological disaster in the Great Lakes from a Gulf of Mexico-style oil well blow out? Pretty low, thanks to strong public opposition to drilling in or under the lakes over the last three decades. The only significant active oil or gas recovery in the Great Lakes takes place in and from under Ontario’s Lake Erie waters. The first well in the lake was drilled in 1913. In 2006, Ontario had licensed 513 offshore natural gas wells and 18 horizontal wells that produced both oil and natural gas in Lake Erie waters.

A 2006 report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) found that of the eight Great Lakes states, only New York, Wisconsin and Michigan had explicit bans on both directional and in-lake drilling for most oil and gas.  But none of the states are actively leasing oil and gas exploration and recovery involving the Lakes. And a 2005 Congressional ban on new oil and gas drilling is still in effect.  Some question its constitutionality, however.

That’s not to say no oil and gas exists under the Lakes.  The CRS report noted that bottomland under Ohio’s Lake Erie contain estimated recoverable natural gas estimates using of 1.1 billion cubic feet (bcf). Total U.S. natural gas reserves in Lake Erie are estimated at 1.8 trillion cubic feet (tcf) roughly equivalent to 0.1% of U.S. total natural gas reserves in 2004. The e Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources estimates that about 156 million barrels of oil and 1.0 tcf of gas remained under Canada’s portion of Lake Erie.  The U.S. Geological Survey estimated quantities of technically recoverable oil and gas resources in the Michigan Basin include a mean of 990 million barrels of oil and 11 tcf of natural gas.

In 1982, Michigan banned oil and gas drilling in its Great Lakes waters, but in the 1990s the Lake Michigan Federation (now the Alliance for the Great Lakes) discovered that the state had authorized 13 slant oil wells under Lakes Michigan and Huron. The resulting public outcry led to a state ban on direction drilling under the Lakes in 2002.

A Michigan right-wing think tank, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, has repeatedly called for repealing the Great Lakes drilling ban. In 2008 the group claimed the state could reap $3-4 billion in benefit from allowing slant drilling under the Lakes.

In the 2008 presidential election, oil drilling under the Lakes became an issue briefly when Barack Obama supporters challenged John McCain to clarify whether his support for offshore drilling included wells in the Lakes.  McCain’s campaign said that the candidate did not support drilling in the Lakes.

Image credit: Alliance for the Great Lakes.