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Drilling fight erupts again in Shelby

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Shelby Township — A long-running standoff over oil drilling in residential areas is reaching a make or break point in this Macomb County community.

Since May 11, a well in the upscale neighborhood just north of the 25 Mile/Dequindre intersection has been operating during business hours. Homeowners in one Shelby Township neighborhood have been on edge for the past year over the well that sits 500 feet from some homes, leading local officials to pass a moratorium last year on drilling in the township.

The well will operate for two to three weeks to determine if there is enough oil at the site to begin full-time operations.

Residents had hoped this was something they would never see. Last week, Jim Mattison, president of the neighborhood's homeowners association, joked: "I was hoping they'd just pack up and leave."

Similar conflicts have cropped up in Rochester Hills and Scio Township in the last year, leading to battles in the state Legislature over giving communities more power to regulate drilling operations within their borders. The efforts have produced little change and are prompting a freshman Macomb County lawmaker to draft new legislation in a bid to give local governments more say in drilling decisions.

The Shelby well, dug by Traverse City-based West Bay Exploration, essentially sat untouched since late last summer after the township's initial moratorium went into effect. But earlier this month, Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality gave West Bay the go-ahead to start up its completion well.

Rob Huth, Shelby Township's attorney, said officials are taking a wait-and-see approach and are opting not to try to enforce the moratorium on the well. Shelby's Board of Trustees is expected Tuesday to extend the moratorium.

"The township board followed my recommendation not to take any legal action at this time against the well," Huth said. "Our No. 1 problem-solver would simply be if it turns out they don't have a producing well."

The future in this Macomb County community hinges largely on what the results of the well show. If it finds little to no traces of gas or oil, West Bay likely would pack up and be done with the site.

"We've come to test the well and see if it's going to be productive," said Pat Gibson, West Bay's vice president. "If it's not productive, we would simply plug the well and restore the site."

However, if the test well produces, West Bay will be looking to move forward with full-scale production. And it could lead to legal entanglements.

"Our plan would be to temporarily plug the well and then reach out to the neighbors in the community," Gibson said. "We would start to work on a plan as to how we could produce the well with the least disturbance possible for the residents."

Gibson repeatedly has said he does not believe the township's moratorium would apply to the Shelby well since it was enacted after West Bay began work on its oil well. That position has done little to gain trust in the community.

Relations, never particularly good, have worsened in recent weeks. West Bay officials agreed to meet with a handful of residents this spring, but homeowners said the get-together produced little new insight into the situation.

Mattison, the homeowners association leader, said he believed the meeting was nothing more than a publicity stunt to give West Bay the chance to say it had talked to locals about the project.

Shelby Township Supervisor Rick Stathakis has said he has no plans to work with West Bay until the company agrees to appear at a public forum where all residents have the opportunity to have their questions answered.

State Rep. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township, plans to draft legislation that he hopes will avoid the pitfalls of bills that were defeated late in 2014. He wants to take the power to approve projects away from the DEQ and put it in the hands of local townships.

But his legislation likely will not be taken up until August at the earliest, he said.

"It is necessary for local governments to have a say in what is best for their residents ... ," Lucido said Monday. "Currently, the (Michigan Department of Natural Resources) has a law on the books that basically says we don't want any drilling for oil and gas within 1,340 feet of natural resources like lakes, streams ... .

"We are protecting animals, lakes and streams more than we are protecting human health with these policies."

But the oil and gas industry argues the DEQ is better positioned to weigh any environmental risks while ensuring Michigan meets some of its energy needs through drilling.

"Michigan's very strict regulatory framework is respected nationwide for the role it has played in keeping communities and the environment safe, while making sure that home-state production of oil and gas continues to benefit the state and its citizens," said Erin McDonough, president and CEO of Michigan Oil And Gas Association.

"We think the state's expertise, professional team and enforcement authority remains the best jurisdiction for permitting and regulatory compliance."


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