Shelby Township residents protested oil drilling plans at a Wednesday town hall meeting. (Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)
Shelby Township officials are scrambling to halt oil drilling near a residential area, something other Southeast Michigan communities haven’t succeeded in doing.
West Bay Exploration, a Traverse City drilling company, will begin operating a test well this week in an area roughly 500 feet from the closest homes. In response, township trustees approved Tuesday a six-month moratorium on oil drilling in the township — a move designed to buy time for local leaders to consider their options in opposing the operation.
Several West Bay projects have faced opposition in areas such as Rochester Hills and Scio Township. But planning and zoning officials around Michigan often have found they can do little to stop the drilling “unless very serious consequences would result from the extraction of those natural resources,” according to a 3-year-old state law.
That’s the feeling in Shelby Township.
“Oil and gas drilling and exploration should never occur or have a presence in any residential neighborhood in the state of Michigan,” Township Supervisor Rick Stathakis said. “It’s really frustrating to be in this situation and have only minimal, if any, control because of the way state law is written.”
Nearly 700 people — including activists and some from other communities — filled the Palazzo Grande on Wednesday for a town hall meeting about West Bay’s test well north of the 25 Mile Road and Dequindre.
In question-and-answer sessions, attendees asked about a range of topics including well safety, the impact on drinking water quality, the possibility of spills or hazards, technical aspects of operations and other issues. The meeting lasted about four hours and was generally calm.
When asked about air and water quality, Patrick Gibson, West Bay’s vice president, assured residents and others the company would have monitoring on site. Township fire authorities also are expected to work daily with the company to make sure there is proper security and reporting as required by fire code and state regulations.
Some residents had concerns about the potential for more drilling. Gibson said that would depend on the success of the proposed site.
One person questioned the need for the project and wondered why, given the potential environmental risks, they didn’t learn about the efforts sooner.
“Why didn’t I get prior notice so I could’ve taken proactive steps?” said Kristen White of Rochester Hills, who lives near the drilling site.
Others left the meeting with the same concerns they had at the beginning.
Hope Lucas doesn’t live near the drilling site, but friends and family live in the area close to 26 Mile and Mound where West Bay was rumored to be considering a processing plant.
Overall, Lucas said, not many residents support the drilling operations.
“They need to leave,” she said. “Nobody wants it here.”
People read law differently
The law dealing with new oil projects is the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act, which has said for years, “A county or township shall not regulate or control thedrilling, completion, or operation of oil or gas wells or other wells drilled for oil or gas exploration purposes.”
When the law was amended in 2011, legislators added this condition on communities for barring drilling: “An ordinance shall not prevent the extraction, by mining, of valuable natural resources from any property unless very serious consequences would result from the extraction of those natural resources.”
Some local officials interpret this part of the law with its reference to mining to exclude situations where oil drilling is in play. But in Shelby Township, Stathakis said they aren’t taking any chances. Officials have documented the complaints of residents living near the test well site in what they believe is a clear demonstration of “very serious consequences.”
Some Macomb County lawmakers also aren’t thrilled with the way the law has been treated. Although State Sen. Jack Brandenburg and Rep. Peter Lund represent Shelby Township and both voted to approve the 2011 changes to the Zoning Enabling Act, they say the law’s application is not what legislators had in mind when it was passed.
“This was designed to help large (sand and gravel) mine projects in the Upper Peninsula,” Lund said. “We never envisioned it being used this way and this is certainly not was intended.”
Brandenburg and Lund say they are pushing for legislation that will clarify the original intent of the zoning law and give communities back some power in deciding what exploration projects can locate within their borders. An initial proposal, crafted by Brandenburg, seeks to protect residential areas by prohibiting mining and drilling in any township with a population above 70,000.
“Nowhere in what we voted on did it say you can put an oil well in a residential neighborhood ...,” Brandenburg said. “If we’re lucky, extremely lucky, we could get this new legislation passed by late September.”
West Bay says operation quiet
Shelby Township’s moratorium could buy legislators more time. But Gibson, doesn’t agree. Mining and drilling operations, he said, are governed by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, not township ordinances.
“I’m not sure their moratorium is anything more than symbolic,” he said. West Bay has secured mineral/oil leases from 290 individuals in the community covering 900 acres, which company officials say demonstrates that not everyone opposes the project.
Gibson added residents should not judge the Shelby Township project by what they have seen in recent weeks as the company has built its test well. Typically, the work neighbors find most intrusive or problematic comes at the outset of a drilling project when operations are first being set up, he said, while the day-to-day running of an oil well is a much quieter experience.
“Someone who buys a house there in a year to 18 months — they’re not going to know there’s a well there,” Gibson said.
But the mere presence of a well may influence whether anyone wants to move there or how much they are willing to pay to do it, opponents argue. Home values are likely to drop with an oil well operating 450 feet away, said Jim Mattison, 67, who has lived in Creekside Village of Shelby Township for a decade and is president of the neighborhood’s homeowners association.
For now, Mattison said he hopes the moves by local elected officials will pay off — or at least help another community facing an unwanted well or mine project.
“We may have to grin and bear this,” he said, “but we might be able to help the next guys down the road.”
Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed.