Oil in Scio?
Pink flags dot the green field to the northeast of Miller and West Delhi roads.
by James Leonard
From the July, 2014 issue
Standing at the corner of Miller and West Delhi roads, Dagmar Moore points to an array of pink flags dotting the green field to the northeast.
"That's where they'll go," she says. "Oil derricks with methane flares on the top and pumps and storage tanks--and all at the western entrance to Ann Arbor."
The former banking consultant takes out an area map and measures the distances. "The wells will be about one mile from the Huron River and within two miles of the high-density developments of Loch Alpine and the Preserve, the Glades, and Walnut Ridge and many millionaires' houses."
Moore and her husband live a mile down West Delhi from Miller on a bluff overlooking the Huron, but she's not the only person opposed to oil exploration. Since West Bay Exploration filed a permit application with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality in May to drill a 4,800-foot test well, groups have sprung up under the names No Drill Scio, Citizens for Oil Free Backyards, and Grandmas Opposing Oil Drilling in Scio.
West Bay doesn't buy property outright--they lease the mineral rights from the owners. And though nearly 200 Scio residents have signed an online petition promising not to lease their property, "Mr. [Kevin] Wing owns most of the area around here," Moore says. "He owns the farm across the street and the farm on West Delhi and Miller. He owns the fields on Miller and Zeeb and he owns land on Dexter-Ann Arbor Rd. He owns the pumpkin patch on the corner of Zeeb--and he's eager to sell the mineral rights."
Since this would just be a test well, Moore concedes, West Bay might find nothing and "go away. But they're spending lots of money for tests, so there's probably oil down there. And then they could be here five or six years."
"We all need oil," Moore allows. "But do we need to drill near an urban environment?"
Moore also understands how hard it will be to stop: "The Michigan
Zoning Enabling Act (Act 110) of 2006 specifically removed the right to 'regulate or control the drilling, completion, or operation of oil or gas wells ...' from local jurisdictions," she explains in a follow-up email. "It thus enables oil companies to drill wherever they can obtain mineral rights and disables elected officials from acting upon the wishes of the citizens.
"That law needs to be challenged immediately, with the utmost determination and on all fronts," Moore writes. "It says right in Act 110-2006 that it can be challenged, if 'very serious consequences would result from the extraction.' The risk of serious noise, air and water pollution in a densely populated area with the concomitant reduction in the property value of thousands of homes is indeed a serious consequence."
Scio Township supervisor Spaulding Clark also knows Act 110 and grasps its implications. "I appreciate people's concerns, but I try to tell everyone that there's a state statute that's black and white [governing] drilling: you can't stop it," he says. "A lot of entities are suggesting different ways of getting around the law, but if the state says you can't do it, then you can't do it--and they've said you can't do it.
"Some people also suggest we change the statute," Clark continues, "but I don't think it'll change in the current political environment." Democratic governor Jennifer Granholm signed Act 110 into law, and there's no chance of repeal while Republicans control both the legislature and the governor's office.
Clark understands the reasoning behind the law. "You're dealing with a resource you don't find everywhere. You can't say 'go ten miles over there to drill it' because it isn't over there."
He also says West Bay, which is based in Traverse City, has "a good reputation in Michigan. We had a meeting, and I was stunned to see all these places in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties where they have wells.
"If you'd asked me four months ago if there was oil in Scio, I would have laughed and said 'hell, no,'" Clark concludes. "But good or bad, there is nothing to do about it because the law is very damn clear: townships and counties don't have the power to stop oil companies from drilling."
West Bay vice president Pat Gibson says the company's motivation is simple: "We have a good geophysical prospect for oil and gas deposits from seismic tests we ran last summer ... There's no way to tell if there's really oil and gas, so we need to drill a well to test the theory."
Gibson compares the installation of a test well with "the construction of a small building. We work on a 200-by-200-square-foot area of land. There's some excavation equipment involved first, then the drilling rig itself is on location for two to three weeks. We drill pretty well straight down, with multiple layers of steel pipe plus cement casing poured into the hole to protect against accidents."
West Bay hopes to find "a lot of oil," the VP explains. "There's always some amount of natural gas when oil comes to the surface, but primarily we're hoping for oil. We discovered a field in Jackson County, and we've already dug fifty-two wells in the last five years in the Irish Hills."
If they find oil, the next step is "to try to identify the extent of discovery," Gibson says, "to see if we need two wells or more, maybe six or eight." Though he can't say how large an area they'd need, he can say "we have an eighty acres drilling permit, and it could end up being quite a bit larger. We've already leased about a thousand acres."
But, according to Gibson, that doesn't mean Ann Arbor's western horizon will glow with the light of oil derricks' methane flares. "A set of pipes and valves to extract oil stands about fifteen feet [tall] and is about six feet wide--about the size of a small garden shed, but taller. Distribution would be some distance away, three-quarters of a mile or more, and would have little impact on neighbors or the road. After the initial construction, all the neighbors would see is a pickup truck twice a day at the extraction site to check the equipment.
"The biggest question that comes up is the amount of truck traffic, then the sound, then the smell," Gibson says. "We'd keep the big trucks out, and, as for the sound and smell, there's a lot of technologies that are doing a really good job of not releasing hydrocarbons, and there's no noise associated with the method we're using."
Gibson says the company's wells have "had no impact ... whatsoever" on the Irish Hills. Columbia Township supervisor Bob Elrod says that while there were concerns voiced at the town hall meetings, in his estimation there's been no lasting negative effect. "Between the producers and the state, they've done a yeoman's job of looking out for the environment."
What's the potential for polluting the nearby Huron River? "That's what everybody assumes," replies Gibson, "but we have an excellent track record. With the current method of cement casing plus multiple levels of steel pipe, we have not had one [case of] groundwater contamination--and we've dug thousands of wells for hundreds of operators."
The VP acknowledges the community response so far has been "quite emotional, but that's typical when we're going into a new area. It goes away completely when we drill the first well ... Our impact and our footprint is a lot smaller than people anticipate."
Of course, the people most directly affected--those who sign leases permitting extraction on their property--will get checks to soothe any unhappiness. "In Jackson County, for example, the landowners get one-eighth of what comes out of the ground," Gibson says, "and that meant about $22 million in royalties."
[Originally published in July, 2014.]