Michigan Senate rejects local drilling limits bills

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Personal property rights took center stage Thursday in the Michigan Senate as the Republican-controlled body rejected two bills that would have empowered local governments to put limits on oil and natural gas drilling in their back yards.

The two bills, backed mostly by Metro Detroit senators, were designed to give communities the ability to rebuff energy and exploration companies looking to set up wells near residential populations. The debate came several months after one oil well set up shop less than 500 feet from a residential neighborhood in Shelby Township.

Sen. Jack Brandenburg, R-Harrison Township, sponsored the bills after residents protested a series of drilling projects in the region, including the site in Shelby and others in Rochester Hills and Scio Township. He was backed by Sens. John Pappageorge, R-Troy, and Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor.

“I would ask each and every one of you to put yourselves in the place of those residents in Shelby Township,” Brandenburg said on the Senate floor Thursday. “Let’s face it, a home is a man and a woman’s castle. ... We all break our backs to get the home of our dreams. Just imagine you’ve finally arrived at that point, and one morning you wake up and there’s a giant oil well out your back yard, just 450 feet from your door.

“It just isn’t right.”

The legislation would have prevented the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality from approving drilling permits for projects in communities of 70,000 or more, or for projects within 450 feet of a residential building.

Amendments proposed reducing the population figure to communities of 15,000 or more and increasing the setback requirement to 1,320 feet or a quarter mile. In each instance, however, the proposed changes were defeated, with Sen. Howard Walker, R-Traverse City, leading the charge.

“This will have a very, very chilling effect on the development of oil and gas in our state,” Walker said. “To have local control being provided — local ordinances, local mandates and local restrictions — by people who don’t have the experience in the oil and gas business is going to be chilling on oil and gas development in out state.”

He argued that adopting the bills would lead to greater “mission creep” and regulation of drilling.

“Just say nope to the slippery slope,” Walker said.

New technologies have allowed energy companies to find oil and natural gas in new places around Michigan, leading to drilling projects for which some communities weren’t ready.

The recent drop in oil prices, however, has slowed development of many projects.

The lull is allowing communities and state legislators to look at ways of exercising greater control over where oil and natural gas wells are sited.

For Shelby Township officials and many residents, Thursday’s votes are a major blow to their hopes. In late August, the township enacted a six-month moratorium on oil drilling and the company behind the project agreed to shut it down “indefinitely.”

But it is unclear if that moratorium and others will survive legal challenges. West Bay Exploration is a Traverse City-based company that has aggressively pursued drilling interests in Metro Detroit, including the Shelby Township site. In late August, after Scio and Shelby townships had passed their moratoriums within a day of each other, Vice President Pat Gibson said he didn’t believe the measures had any bearing on his company under state law.

JLynch@detroitnews.com(313) 222-2034