The University Record, December 10, 2001

Slant drilling focuses on Great Lakes

By Rachel Ehrenberg
News and Information Services

A satellite image of the Great Lakes. (Image courtesy of NASA)
While Michigan lawmakers consider the pros and cons of directional or “slant” drilling for oil along the Great Lakes shoreline, two U-M scientists are conducting related research.

Lynn Walter, professor of geologic sciences, is studying the effects of geochemical processes on surface waters, ground waters and subsurface reservoirs. A focus of Walter’s work is the geology and geochemistry of oil and gas, and their formation waters, and the surface streams and ground waters that feed into the Great Lakes.

While environmentalists and residents have raised concerns that if drilling is allowed, breaks or cracks in underground pipes or rock formations would allow oil or natural gas to seep into the Great Lakes, Walter believes the environmental risks of directional drilling have decreased.

“The technology for directional drilling has become highly sophisticated and much more environmentally friendly,” says Walter.

Directionally drilled wells allow the extraction of oil and natural gas from areas once thought unreachable. Wells are drilled from an onshore tract of land, and once the well bore is several hundred feet below the surface, it is angled to the desired area of the lake bottom.

Even though the environmental risks associated with drilling have decreased, Walter notes that the economic rewards of tapping into reserves beneath the Great Lakes are probably significant only locally.

“On a national or global scale, the amount of hydrocarbon reserve potential exploitable by Great Lakes drilling is relatively small and is dwarfed by reserves in other basins, such as the offshore Gulf of Mexico.”

Guy Meadows, director of the Ocean Engineering Laboratory in the U-M Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering, has developed an Environmental Monitoring Network for Lake St. Clair and is currently seeking funding to expand the monitoring to other coastal areas of the Great Lakes.

The Lake St. Clair monitoring network combines environmental data from a floating, automated, monitoring buoy with modeling data on lake circulation. It provides wind speed and direction, current speed and direction, wave height and period, and air and water temperature every 30 minutes.

“The model can also track ‘passive contaminants’—things like pollution, oil, other chemicals, suspended sediments, things that do not change their characteristics as they travel,” says Meadows.

An additional concern of those opposed to drilling is the potential for large-scale accidents to tourists and other recreational users of the Great Lakes shoreline due to leaks of poisonous gases such as hydrogen sulfide. An expansion of the Environmental Monitoring Network could prove valuable in alerting residents and managers to environmental hazards on the Great Lakes, says Meadows.

Currently, the environmental data regarding Lake St. Clair are available almost instantly on a University Web site, where they are presented overlaying a satellite image of the lake. Meadows’ team can predict local water circulation patterns throughout the lake in response to changing wind and river flows. By combining this information with water quality data from public health officials, researchers can determine threats to human health.

“We’ll have an outreach-based Web site available to managers, planners and the public,” says Meadows. “It will provide ‘now-casts’ and forecasts of lake water quality conditions.”