Metro Detroit gas drilling rules irk opponents

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Michigan will introduce new rules this week for advance notification and certain precautions that oil and gas companies must adopt when looking to site new wells in Metro Detroit, but fall short of a drilling halt sought by opponents.

Department of Environmental Quality officials plan to send new instructions for companies that intend to drill wells in counties with populations exceeding 750,000 — narrowing the scope to Oakland, Wayne and Macomb — that would require more residents and government officials be told about prospective drilling, according to a summary memorandum of the rules obtained by The Detroit News.

The rules also mandate that companies study other locations than the proposed site, adopt ways to reduce noise and light caused by drilling, and install at least one ground water well in the area to monitor for possible contamination of the water supply in areas that are zoned residential. The regulations are intended to address concerns that have resulted in citizen rebellions and local moratoriums against drilling in Rochester Hills, Shelby Township and Scio Township outside of Ann Arbor as well as a failed effort to amend the state law in December.

To the chagrin of several citizens groups around the region, the rules do not include the authority to halt projects in residential areas or create new setbacks for wells. Michigan currently has a 300-foot buffer between residential structures and wells, and the number jumps to 450 feet in townships that have more than 70,000 residents.

State officials say there is little more they can do under the law. Planning and zoning officials around Michigan often have found they can do little to stop drilling "unless very serious consequences would result from the extraction of those natural resources," according to a 2011 state law.

"Drilling is specifically protected by law from local bans," said Brad Wurfel, spokesman for the DEQ. "In that context, we've done a lot of good work toward addressing the issues and trying to make sure everyone's interest is addressed.

"To the folks that simply want to see no oil and gas exploration in Michigan, we know that won't be enough."

Shelby Township resident Denise Demak and other members of Citizens Against Residential Drilling have closely monitored a state work group formed to address recent conflicts between residents and gas and oil companies, and they are dissatisfied with the new regulations.

"Anything of substance, such as setbacks or residential zoning, the group did not address or discuss," said Demak, whose group had one member on the panel. "The stuff that would really help homeowners around the state ... was never put into the recommendations."

Rules don't stop drilling

The new rules require companies to:

■Notify residents within 1,320 feet of a new well, along with local government officials and state legislators.

■Investigate other alternatives to the proposed well site.

■Adopt noise reduction and light-shielding strategies.

■Install at least one monitoring well for groundwater.

The four-year-old Michigan Zoning Enabling Act supersedes local authority to thwart oil and gas drilling, said Hal Fitch, chief of DEQ's Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals.

"Townships and counties are prohibited from zoning for oil and gas operations," Fitch said. "Cities and villages aren't prohibited from it, but they can't do what amounts to exclusionary zoning. They have to provide some area where companies can drill."

Erin McDonough, president and CEO of the Michigan Oil and Gas Association, said the industry agreed to rules that will eventually prove more costly.

"It's expensive but it's a compromise," McDonough said. "The upside is this has given companies (a way) to move forward in a more positive way."

Residential drilling pays

A decade ago, seismic three-dimensional imaging technology allowed exploration firms to locate gas and oil deposits in new areas. Coupled with the proliferation of hydraulic fracturing that uses massive amounts of water and horizontal drilling, companies found there was money to be made setting up shop in the midst of residential development.

In 2014, battles intensified over drilling. While some residents in Rochester Hills and Shelby Township gladly leased their land for exploration, others threatened lawsuits and local officials passed moratoriums on drilling to keep the companies at bay.

The battle over property rights shifted to Lansing in December, when the Michigan Senate rejected bills that would have prevented the DEQ from approving drilling permits for projects in communities of 70,000 or more or for projects within 450 feet of residential buildings.

Sen. Howard Walker, R-Traverse City, spearheaded efforts to defeat that legislation, saying it would have a "chilling" effect on oil and gas development in Michigan.

But Sen. Jack Brandenburg, R-Harrison Township, who proposed the unsuccessful drilling legislation, represents Shelby Township residents trying to fight off a new well being eyed by West Bay Exploration of Traverse City. This summer, the company set up a test well within 500 feet of homes in one subdivision.

"I realize these best practices don't go as far as some people out there would like to see them go," Brandenburg said. "But they are better than what we've had in the past.

"I don't think West Bay will ever go into a community again, now that we have these practices in place, and do what they did in Shelby Township. That was a travesty."

But Demak said the guidelines offer little tangible protection for homeowners. Requirements such as improved notification, she said, are of little help in the long run.

"It's kind of like you're going to get a notification that you're going to have a heart attack next week," she said. "When you ask if there's anything else you can do to prepare for it, there really isn't. You just brace for it."

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