Google Earth has created a handy/scary tool that lets you get a better picture of the size of the Gulf oil spill by superimposing an image of it on whatever geography you wish. In my case, that's the Great Lakes, where I've covered the environment for many years. As you can see from the image above, the expanding Gulf oil spill would have made a big mess of Lake Huron by now.
What's bad for the Gulf of Mexico could end up being good news for the lakes, though, stopping calls to seek oil beneath their surfaces. The conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland pushed for drilling in the Great Lakes as recently as 2008. But experts such as Alan Steinman from the Annis Water Resources Institute say the Deepwater Horizon disaster may help shift public sentiment away from oil and toward cleaner energy sources such as wind and solar.
After all (and I apologize if you're heard this already), windmills don't spill.
Russ Harding, the former head of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, is now with the Mackinac Center. He said a couple of years ago that the drilling ban in the Great Lakes should be lifted. Directional drilling for oil and natural gas under the Great Lakes was prohibited by state law in 2002 and federal law in 2005. Harding estimated in 2008 that the economic benefit of tapping Michigan's Great Lakes reserves would amount to up to $4 billion a year.
Couldn't Michigan use that money now, in the midst of a projected $1.5 billion budget deficit? Or has Harding changed his mind since the Gulf spill? He couldn't be reached for comment.
But Steinman says the damage in the Gulf enhances the case for moving wind energy forward in the Great Lakes.
"Ultimately, these decisions are made more on economic than environmental grounds," he says. "So, the environmental consequences by themselves are unlikely to be a strong enough driver to change our policies. But if those consequences are exacerbated by serious economic impacts, then there is certainly the possibility we will see a change in the direction."
He notes, however, that data on how well wind energy will work on a year-round basis in the Great Lakes is lacking. Ice accumulating on blades and other wintry conditions are possible obstacles. Grand Valley State University, where the Annis institute is housed, is conducting a study on those question marks. The data won't be available for a few years, Steinman says.
Image: Google Earth, showing how the Gulf oil spill would look superimposed on Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron