Oil exploration sets off alarms
There's oil under Manchester and Saline townships. How they get it out is the question.
Hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking, blasts chemical-laced water and sand deep into the earth to splinter rock formations and release oil and gas deposits.
This might sound like an idea worth pursuing in these days of rising fuel prices. But critics say the ecological problems outweigh the economic benefits, contending that fracking can spill toxic chemicals into groundwater--citing examples of contaminated wells in Wyoming, Pennsylvania, and New York.
So when a Community Observer reader called to say Precision Geophysical was conducting seismic tests west of Manchester and that she feared fracking was the inevitable next step, we checked it out.
All Steven McCrossin, Precision Geophysical's president, would say was that they were in fact testing, not drilling or fracking. David Bechler of the state's Department of Environmental Quality confirms that it's all they're allowed to do: he says no permits have been drawn for further gas or oil exploration, much less for fracking, in western Washtenaw County.
Ron Mann, Manchester Township's supervisor, already knew about the tests. "Companies have been doing that here for four or five years, and I've heard some have signed leases, but to the best of my knowledge, nothing else's been done yet."
If and when something is done, Mann isn't overly concerned. "There's already been a lot of activity in Napoleon and Norvell townships, our neighbors over in Jackson County. I've talked to the people there, and they say the companies have been real good to work with and that they've followed all the rules really well."
"There was a lot of testing, but that was years ago, and they've been drilling wells since then," says Dan Wymer, Napoleon's clerk. "A dozen or so here, and more than that in Norvell Township. There's a deposit of oil that extends for quite a few miles in a long and narrow band, and lots of people are getting royalties from the mineral rights."
The deposit is called
the Trenton-Black River Formation, says Pat Gibson, vice-president of West Bay Exploration out of Traverse City, the company doing the drilling. "It's in the 4,200-5,000-foot depth range, and runs fifteen miles north to south. We've drilled thirty-seven wells up to this point."
And that's drilled, not fracked, Gibson emphasizes. "No, no, no. No fracking. There's no point in fracking. The formation's already naturally fractured, and you'd damage it if you tried to frack it."
Fracking is already happening elsewhere in Michigan--the state auctioned rights to a quarter-million acres of land for that purpose last year--and Ann Arbor state representative (and former Washtenaw County commissioner) Jeff Irwin wants to insure it's adequately regulated. "We have the most to lose in Michigan because we've got so much fresh water to contaminate," Irwin says.
He and other Democrats introduced four bills last November that would police future fracking. "One is a short-term, one-year moratorium on fracking, and with that is another bill for a comprehensive study of the public health, environmental, and natural resource impact of fracking," Irwin says. "The most important bill makes for full disclosure of whatever chemicals are used in the fracking. And my bill requires frackers to be held accountable for how much water they're using. Fracking uses a tremendous amount of water, and the local effects can be really deleterious on streams and rivers."
The bills will likely face an uphill fight in the Republican-controlled legislature--but since no one's fracking here anyway, Ron Mann isn't overly concerned. For the current oil wells, he says, "I'm reasonably satisfied that we have the controls necessary, and I don't see pollution as a problem. I'm more concerned with the materials going up and down our highways in tanker trucks and we don't even know what's going on in there!"
It turns out Washtenaw County already has a few working oil wells. Scott Lampert, president of Paxton Resources out of Gaylord, confirms that his company bought two operating wells in Saline Township three years ago. They've since drilled two more and are planning a fifth this year. "We have had some marginal successes," Lampert says. "We're still hopeful, but it's still too early to say if this will be a huge endeavor."
Like Gibson, Lampert emphasizes that these wells have been drilled conventionally. "No, no fracking." This hasn't stopped some township residents from fearing future fracking, leading to coverage in the Saline Reporter. "We tried to address those fears in the interview," says Lampert, "and we gave people our phone number, which was published in the article, and we have never received a phone call to date. We have not had any complaints that I'm aware of."
Not that Paxton Resources doesn't frack: they've got 12,000 fracked wells in Michigan. "We haven't had an incident yet," Lampert reports. "And hopefully we never will."
[Originally published in June, 2012.]