State board approves petition language to ban drilling

Gary Heinlein
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan's Board of State Canvassers approved the format of petitions for a ballot campaign to ban hydraulic fracturing Tuesday, and the leader of the effort said volunteers will start collecting signatures on May 22.

"We have a lot more momentum statewide, a lot more people wanting to sign the petitions, a lot more people wanting to volunteer," said LuAnne Kozma, chairwoman of the Committee to Ban Fracking in Michigan.

The group has 180 days from the start of petition circulation to collect 252,523 signatures. If they turn in enough signatures, lawmakers will have 40 days to approve the proposed ban of this method of drilling for gas and oil — also called fracking — or allow the question to go on ballots for the November 2016 general election.

Prior efforts in 2012 and 2013 by the Charlevoix-based organization were unsuccessful when volunteers didn't collect enough signatures. But Kozma said Committee to Ban Fracking, which has raised $98,000 from small donations, is counting on greater awareness this time.

The canvassers voted 3-0 to green light the petitions, with Republican Norm Shinkle abstaining, after a challenge from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

Chamber Senior Vice President Jim Holcomb and Lansing lawyer Gary Gordon argued that the petitions' title language failed to inform prospective signers of significant impacts and potential constitutional implications of the proposed ballot initiative.

"It's deceptive, misleading and doesn't meet minimal statutory and constitutional requirements," Gordon said.

Among other things, he said, the proposal would dramatically reduce revenue from state oil and gas leases, used to fund public land purchases and park improvements.

Exploration firms bid for leases allowing them to harvest natural gas or oil from state lands at public auctions, usually held twice a year. Opponents of hydraulic fracturing often target the bidding sessions for demonstrations.

Gordon said the proposal also clashes with legal provisions that give the state's Court of Claims, now part of the Michigan Court of Appeals, the authority to settle legal disputes over such issues as fracking practices. He said the petitioners want to give citizens the right to file cases in any state court and have their legal fees paid by corporations involved in fracking.

Hydraulic fracturing involves high-pressure pumping of water and other chemicals to fracture and extract oil or natural gas from underground shale formations. Employed in Michigan with few problems for more than 50 years, it's now used for much deeper natural gas deposits lying two miles below the surface.

Opponents say there's risk of draining lakes and waterways because fracking in such deep wells requires millions of gallons of water that are pumped out of underground aquifers. Safe disposal of contaminated water that comes back up from the oil and gas wells is another concern, they say.

Proponents say the process is safe if done properly under Michigan's environmental rules. Its use in oil- and gas-rich U.S. shale formations — particularly in North Dakota and Texas — has lowered natural gas and gasoline prices, said Associated Petroleum Industries of Michigan Executive Director John Griffin.

DTE Energy says it is paying 57 percent less than in 2008 for natural gas. Consumers Energy says the April price it will pay for natural gas is the lowest in 14 years.

The state chamber may go to court to block passage of the proposed ban. It issued a news release urging voters not to sign "a badly flawed petition" from "a group that is not being straightforward" about its content.

"We're going to fight this all the way through the process," Holcomb said.

Kozma said her group is going to need a lot more money but also is counting on "passion" to overcome the huge financial advantage fracking supporters have.

"This is a very powerful thing that people in Michigan can do and it has been done many times before," she said.

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