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Commissioner sees water risk in oil, gas drills



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March 06, 2013 - When it comes to oil and gas drilling in Oakland County, "I don't think this is a good fit for us. We're a tightly populated county, and our water resources are incredibly important to our economy, and if we had an issue that was serious it could really be devastating," said Water Resources Commissioner Jim Nash.

Nash's concerns stem from incidents in other states where contamination due to oil and gas drilling operations have occurred.

For example, during an extraction in Pennsylvania, "one of the well heads blew out, and they had a 75 foot tall column of poisonous water coming out of the ground, splashing all over, and it threatened some nearby streams," he described.

Independence Township Board is currently considering a proposal from Jordan Exploration, an oil and gas company from Traverse City. Lately, their partners, West Bay Exploration, have approached locals about signing leases.

Jordan Exploration has offered to enter into a nondevelopmental lease with the township board, which wouldn't allow a wellhead on township property. Instead, wellheads would be located on nearby properties owned by private landowners.

Nash said, "it's more than just what's going on at the wellhead. When you're doing a nondevelopmental lease, you're still getting those pipes underneath the ground."

West Bay Exploration Vice President Pat Gibson said the series of concentric casings made of concrete and steel pipe his company uses to extract minerals from beneath the earth's surface ensures, "nothing can get to the groundwater aquifer."

In addition, Gibson notes, "it's all been very closely regulated by the state of Michigan."

Chris Bickley of Jordan Exploration told the Independence Township Board a breach was "scientifically impossible."

From Nash's point of view, "you can put on all the safeguards you want, but human nature is we're not perfect and things happen." He added, "some geologists will say that there is a possibility of [oil and gas] infiltrating through the ground."

Virginia Shannon, the state associate of Environment Michigan, agrees. "There is no way to make any drilling or extraction risk-free, and the threat to local water supplies is real and extensive," she said.

Jordan Exploration and West Bay Exploration are considered companies in "good standing" to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. However, Shannon argues, "regardless of the company and their standing, we know that gas drilling in other states has contaminated drinking water sources, made nearby residents sick, and turned forest acres into industrial zones, all while releasing significant global warming pollution."

Besides the potential environmental impact of oil and gas drilling in Oakland County, Nash feels property owners should be aware of a New York Times' article recently published, which stated major banks "will not put mortgages on a place that has a fracking lease on it," he said. "If the banking industry has questions about it, then I think we all should."

Nash is aware that both Jordan Exploration and West Bay Exploration have said they don't intend to use the technique of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), but from his point of view, "if they don't want to, then a countywide moratorium shouldn't be a problem for them. From what I've heard, they don't like the idea of a moratorium, so that says to me that they might still be interested in fracking."

Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is a method of extracting natural gas by using high volumes of water mixed with chemicals to break through shale rock formations and release gas.

Gibson from West Bay Exploration said he had "no opinion one way or the other" on a fracking moratorium because "it is irrelevant to what we're doing."

"It's not just fracking although fracking is the most serious part," Nash counters. "Oil drilling is a very dirty business. In a conventional oil well, you'll have 50 or 60 oil trucks coming through the roads around it everyday."

Without a countywide moratorium, Nash notes he has little regulatory authority over oil and gas operations.

"Local communities really have more power in terms of zoning and ordinances," he said.

In September, West Bloomfield Township passed a six-month moratorium on drilling operations, and in July Waterford Township passed a resolution in support of regulatory action on oil and gas development.

The Water Resources Commissioner has spoken at numerous town hall meetings since oil and gas companies have shown increasing interest in exploring in the area. During the meetings water well drillers like Joe Curry of White Lake Township and Hal Fitch of the Department of Environmental Quality have shared their expertise and answered citizens' questions.

"We're looking to do them all over the county, so anyone who is interested, we'd love to set it up and work on them," Nash said.

For property owners who are considering entering into lease agreements with oil and gas companies, Nash has two pieces of advice. First he suggests you "talk to your mortgage company and make sure there's not a problem" because your mortgage could be impacted by an oil and gas lease.

Secondly, Nash advises that you talk to an attorney before you sign anything. "And not just any attorney," he said. "You should really find one that has experience with gas and oil leases."

He also encourages communities and private property owners to test their water before drilling occurs. "So you have a baseline, so you know what's in the water before you start drilling," Nash said. After oil and gas extraction, the water can be tested again to see if there is any contamination.

While Nash is aware that people have an opportunity to gain revenue from oil and gas royalties if they enter into lease agreements, "You've got to measure it against what potential hazards there are. Everybody has to judge this for themselves."

Contact the Oakland County Water Resources office at 248-858-0958 or check www.oak.gov/water for more information. Find out more about Environment Michigan from www.environmentmichigan.org.

Clarkston News reporter
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