Pablo Farccarolli, left, shows Mike Powers and Erin Howlett around Rochester Hills' Tienken Park, which may be drilled. (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)
Scio Township — There are places that are good fits for oil and gas exploration. Laura Robinson is convinced her community is not one of them.
Scio Township, which abuts Ann Arbor, is far from the plains of Texas or the wilds of Alaska. But like those traditional homes to drilling, it is being eyed as a source of oil. So is Rochester Hills. And Jackson County.
Communities around Michigan are being targeted for oil and gas exploration as new technologies make it easier to find deposits of oil and natural gas. But when local residents organize to oppose mining projects, they often find there is an uphill battle to stop exploration and eventual drilling under a 3-year-old state law.
Cities and townships are barred from passing any ordinance or law to “prevent the extraction of valuable natural resources from any property unless very serious consequences would result from the extraction of those natural resources.” The state Department of Environmental Quality judges whether there are “very serious consequences.”
Robinson, a longtime resident of Ann Arbor, helped found a local nonprofit called Citizens for Oil-Free Backyards with the goal of preventing the Traverse City-based West Bay Exploration Co. from proceeding with plans to pull oil from beneath their feet.
“This is a rural/residential area, so there are a number of homes very close to the proposed well site,” she said. “There are a number of issues that crop up around this: noise 24 hours a day during the first weeks of drilling, lights, trucks on the road and the potential for spills.”
Citizens for Oil-Free Backyards isn’t alone in opposing West Bay’s plans. Democratic state Reps. Gretchen Driskell of Saline and Jeff Irwin of Ann Arbor, along with Sen. Rebekah Warren of Ann Arbor, recently asked Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality to delay a permit application from West Bay for the project until impact studies are completed.
“The area being considered ... is within one mile of the Huron River which provides drinking water to 85 percent of Ann Arbor residents, and within two miles of the Ann Arbor city limits,” the trio wrote in a letter dated May 20. “By allowing this project to move forward, the DEQ would be potentially compromising the health and well-being of nearly 150,000 Michigan residents.”
While members of the group are meeting with attorneys to discuss their options, letters and protests at municipal meetings may be the strongest weapons they have outside the courts in Michigan. That’s because state law passed in 2011 puts the onus on communities to prove natural resource development will be harmful.
Exploration companies make a lease offer for exploration and drilling rights to homeowners or property owners, who can then agree or reject it.
The state law effectively takes power out of the hands of local government, said James Clift, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council — a coalition of more than 70 organizations.
“The issue of whether they can stop a well from going in — the answer is pretty much no,” he said.
Former state Rep. Matt Huuki, a Republican from Atlantic Mine in the Upper Peninsula, was a sponsor of the legislation. At a 2012 town hall event, he explained the need for the law to protect mining interests such as those of Kennecott — the company behind the Eagle Mine in northern Marquette County that is considered the only primary nickel mine in the country.
“Kennecott has somewhere between $500 million to $800 million invested in their projects,” Huuki told his audience. “You would see that investment disappear overnight if these mining companies, these investors, knew that a township could basically shut down their operations just because they didn’t want them in their backyard.”
As vice president of the West Bay Exploration Co., Pat Gibson is used to meeting with concerned citizen groups and he has a simple message: The company has done this before.
“We’ve been drilling in this region since 2008 and have had no issues,” Gibson said. In addition, the company’s financial incentives for landowners have been a boost to many families in several communities, he said.
In Shelby Township, families received $200 to $300 a month. Last year in Jackson County’s Irish Hills area, West Bay paid out $22 million in landowner royalties.
These kinds of financial lures have won over many in Rochester Hills — another area targeted for oil exploration by both West Bay as well as Jordan Development of Traverse City.
Gibson said more than 400 landowners have expressed interest in leasing their mineral rights. In addition, city officials have signed an agreement leasing rights underneath municipal parks and cemeteries.
As in Ann Arbor, citizens groups have formed to oppose oil drilling in Rochester Hills and have found their legal options for stopping exploration are limited.
So members of Don’t Drill the Hills, a 3-year-old group in the Oakland County community, have opted to challenge exploration and drilling in court. But they are suing city officials and not the drilling companies.
Rochester Hills officials declined to comment because of pending litigation.
Rochester Hills violated its charter by leasing mineral rights for several city parks and cemeteries without allowing residents to vote on the matter, the group argues. But the city argues it did everything legally.
Beyond that fight, drilling opponents in Rochester Hills face the same limited options for stopping exploration and drilling on private property as their brethren in Scio Township.
“Our hands are tied,” said Mike Powers, a member of Don’t Drill the Hills. “This is like a freight train coming from Lansing, and there’s not much we can do to stop it.”