What You Need to Know About Oil and Gas Drilling in the Suburbs

Energy companies are staking out new territory in metro Detroit

In 2015, Traverse City-based Jordan Development Co. approached the leadership of Word of Faith International Christian Center in Southfield with a proposition — but whether said proposition was promising or alarming depends on whom you ask.

Word of Faith church is located on a sprawling 100-plus-acre property on the corner of Nine Mile and Evergreen roads, and Jordan Development’s preliminary tests revealed oil might be present there. The exploration and development company applied for a permit to drill a test well to confirm; if the site proved profitable, the church would receive royalties.

Once the project was announced, though, Southfield residents, government officials, and politicians launched massive protests, some of which continued into the fall of 2017. The church is in a heavily wooded suburban neighborhood; there’s a public park right across the street. While the test well was being constructed in late 2016, nearby residents complained of noise, odor, and light pollution after dark. At one point flames were visible through the tree line — the result of burning natural gas deposits found while drilling.

The City of Southfield attempted to prevent the test well’s construction in March 2016, but the lawsuit was ultimately thrown out in Oakland County’s Circuit Court. The city appealed, but the case was dismissed again in November 2017. The reason? Jordan Development had actually abandoned the well six months earlier, after determining the site wasn’t commercially viable — rendering the issue moot.

So, if the neighborhood had already been spared, why did the city continue to appeal? Both Mayor Kenson Siver and Susan Ward-Witkowski, the city’s attorney, say the legal battle has never been about opposing drilling entirely; it’s about fighting for a municipality’s right to determine where the drilling can take place. But therein lies the issue: Under state law, communities don’t actually have much of a say. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality — specifically, its Oil, Gas, and Minerals Division — is responsible for approving permits for wells. Residents and local governments can complain all they want, but if the state says development can continue, it will. In fact, if an applicant meets all requirements — a key one being that wells must be drilled at least 450 feet from nearby homes — the permit must be issued. Drilling can’t be denied simply because of public criticism, or the state could be sued.

For high-risk projects, the MDEQ can request special conditions, and if the company doesn’t or can’t comply, it might be forced to abandon a project. In Southfield, there were 20-plus special conditions tacked on to account for the population density. But there are no laws that outright prohibit oil and gas exploration in residential neighborhoods.

Jack Lanigan, the senior geologist for the OGMD’s Southeast Michigan District Office, oversaw the Word of Faith project. He empathizes with people who take the “not-in-my-backyard” approach, but he says the system works like it does for a reason. As an example, he offers a hypothetical case of an operator trying to extract oil along Eight Mile Road, where Southfield borders Detroit. If every city had its own regulations, he says, and there was a dispute over jurisdiction, it would be a nightmare. “You can’t move minerals. They occur where they do.”

Disputes like these over oil wells aren’t all that common; oil exploration has actually been declining statewide for more than a decade. But today’s boom in natural gas exploration could present similar challenges. In 2017, DTE Energy committed to reducing its carbon emissions by 80 percent and closing all its coal plants by 2050. That means relying more heavily on natural gas, which likely means pipelines will creep closer and closer to high-density populations.

Unlike oil wells, interstate pipelines are not required to have uniform setbacks from residential properties. In addition, states are involved in regulation to some degree, but the final approval rests with the federal government.

Since 2014, activists in Washtenaw, Monroe, Livingston, and Lenawee counties have been fighting the arrival of the Nexus and ET Rover natural gas pipelines. (DTE Energy is a part-owner of Nexus.) Some townships even passed resolutions to try to prohibit Nexus, but the pipeline was approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in August 2017. ET Rover was approved February 2017.

Oday Salim, executive director and managing attorney at Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, says the takeaway is that residents who are concerned about these issues need to petition a much higher power. Generally, that would mean lobbying state or federal representatives instead of local ones. He points to the infamous Keystone XL pipeline as a case study on how targeted activism can work — and fail. The Obama administration rejected the expansion of Keystone in part due to citizen protests; President Donald Trump, however, approved it in March 2017.

Salim also stresses residents should manage their expectations: Pressuring the federal government to abandon or deny a fossil fuel project is unlikely, but altering its course — that may be doable.

Bottom line: Voting for representatives at both the state and federal levels who prioritize these issues will remain key — as will plenty of patience.