‘Drill, baby, drill’? Not so fast!

Michigan is not exactly a state that an oil and gas industry executive would call “unwelcoming.” In fact, there is a still a 1930s state law on the books stating that it is “the declared policy of the state … to foster the development of the [gas and oil] industry along the most favorable conditions and with a view to the ultimate recovery of the maximum production of these natural products.” This law has been used by the state’s so-called Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Natural Resources to “foster” hydraulic fracking and to allow oil drilling inside the borders of cities and townships.

In southeast Michigan, however, people got together and mobilized — and forced energy companies to retreat twice in one week.

The fracking industry, which has caused widespread destruction in Pennsylvania and Ohio, is looking at Michigan as the next frontier. Because the shale formation here, where natural gas (methane) is trapped, is much deeper below the earth’s surface than in those states, operation here is more costly. That cost is balanced, however, by Michigan’s abundance of freshwater and the fact that a company with mineral rights to a piece of land also has free access to the water there. The DNR has sold, at auction, mineral rights to hundreds of parcels of public land to allow fracking.

Recently it has become known that there are also sites in Michigan where frack waste from Pennsylvania is being accepted. The group Ban Michigan Fracking was able to link up with people in Pennsylvania who were monitoring the site where the waste was being shipped from, and planned to maintain a presence outside Wayne Disposal, near Detroit, until the trucks arrived. The pickets were up Aug. 21, expecting to greet the waste trucks sometime that day or the next. The protest continued for nine straight hours.

The trucks never arrived and plans to store the waste at Wayne Disposal have been shelved for the moment.

Drillers pushed back

Conventional drilling for oil or gas does not pose the environmental threat that is associated with hydraulic fracking, which contaminates millions of gallons of freshwater with secret toxic chemical cocktails every time a company drills. Nevertheless, Michigan-based oil companies are putting public safety at risk by encroaching on densely populated residential communities.

Local governments in Shelby Township and Rochester Hills, near Detroit, and Scio Township, near Ann Arbor, have passed drilling moratoriums. West Bay Exploration has ignored the ordinance passed last spring in Scio, forcing its neighbors to contend with noise and odors. Jordan Development refuses to honor a similar ordinance just passed in Rochester Hills — the company plans to drill horizontally under homes, a city park and a local cemetery. Both companies have hundreds of wells in operation, but until recently have confined drilling to more sparsely populated areas to the north.

Hundreds of residents in all three communities have packed town hall meetings about the drilling issue, hammering company and state representatives for hours on end. More than 700 people attended the most recent meeting in Shelby Township. West Bay announced on Aug. 25 that it was suspending drilling there “indefinitely.” This is another victory that would not have happened if the people had not organized themselves against the corporate polluters.