July 3, 2014 at 4:28 pm

Michigan approves oil drilling site near Ann Arbor

Scio Township — Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality has issued a permit allowing a western Michigan company to drill for oil on the outskirts of Ann Arbor.

Traverse City-based West Bay Exploration Co. has been given the green light to move forward with its plans for drilling in Scio Township despite protests from several local citizen groups as well as local elected officials.

Oil and natural gas exploration has expanded in Michigan to untraditional drilling areas. Seismic surveying technologies have allowed companies to locate oil and natural gas deposits in new areas, and many locations are populated by residents who don’t want the activity so close to home.

“We’re not talking tight formations or fracking for a natural gas well — this is oil,” said Adam Wygant, a section supervisor for the DEQ’s Office of Oil, Gas & Minerals. “We’ve had over 200 similar wells drilled in a seven-county area since 2010. ... We have a track record of these things being conducted safely.”

West Bay Vice President Pat Gibson said the company was confident it would receive the state’s approval and, despite the heightened media interest from drilling near a high-population area, the process has been fairly routine.

“This is simply standard operating procedure for what we do and what we’ve done in Southeast Michigan for over 30 years,” he said.

That’s little comfort to people like Laura Robinson, a longtime Ann Arborite who helped found the local non-profit Citizens for Oil-Free Backyards. While the group expected the permit would get the state’s approval, she said members believe there is work that remains to be done.

“We feel there are still deficiencies in the permit in terms of its accuracy and completeness,” Robinson said. “We are considering our options in terms of the next step and are working with our legal team on that. We’ve heard from a lot of people in Scio Township and other supporters who feel very strongly that they don’t want oil and gas (drilling here).”

In many cases, however, local residents are finding their options limited in opposing new drilling projects. 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.”

“Today’s decision is a direct repercussion of bad state policy that leaves townships and municipalities hamstrung to stop extraction projects from drilling down in citizens’ backyards,” said Jack Schmitt, deputy director for Michigan League of Conservation Voters, in a Thursday statement.

“Scio Township citizens sent a clear message to the DEQ that an oil well does not belong near a major source of drinking water and a vital natural resource. Unfortunately, the DEQ acted in the interest of the oil and gas company, rather than standing up for local citizens or Michigan’s natural resources.”

While Citizens for Oil-Free Backyards contemplates its next legal move, Gibson said West Bay could begin drilling within the next two to three months.

(313) 222-2034