Brad Flory | March 09, 2012 | MLive.com | Shared as an education material
BROOKLYN — A standing-room-only crowd of about 350 gathered Thursday to raise questions about the oil boom transforming the landscape of Jackson County.
Judging by groans, applause and titters, a significant share of the audience was skeptical of assurances that environmental risk is minimal.
“There is nothing they can do to prevent an accident,” said John Bancroft of Norvell Township, who belongs to a group called Irish Hills Waterkeepers. “Someday there will be an accident.”
Organized by state representatives Mike Shirkey and Earl Poleski, the two-hour meeting in a banquet room at Brooklyn’s Super 8 motel was billed as an expert discussion of hydraulic fracturing, or “”
Fracking is controversial, but it is not used in Jackson County. That point was hammered repeatedly by representatives of West Bay Exploration of Traverse City, the company responsible for drilling 42 wells, with more coming, in the Napoleon Field.
“If you get one message tonight: We don’t frack,” said Pat Gibson, a vice president of West Bay. “It’s not something we’re going to do or need to do, ever, in the life of these wells.”
Gibson said West Bay has never fracked anywhere, has never sold a well to a company that instituted fracking, and is willing to put no-fracking clauses in mineral leases.
Many questions from the audience focused on current plans by West Bay to drill two injection wells in Norvell Township. Those wells would be used for disposal of waste fluids, mostly brine, produced by oil wells.
Hal Fitch, who oversees oil drilling for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, said injection wells protect the environment by returning brine deep underground.
“That’s the best way to handle those waste fluids,” Fitch said.
Tim Baker, another vice president of West Bay, said no wastes from outside the Napoleon Field will go into the injections wells.
Wells in the Napoleon Field today follow a line from Big Wolf Lake to Wamplers Lake. Production started in 2009 and has made Jackson County the state leader in crude oil production.
West Bay intends to keep drilling more wells for another year or 18 months, but company officials declined to say how many wells are envisioned. Baker said each injection well can handle brine from about 25 oil wells and a third injection well may eventually be needed.
Fitch assured the crowd that oil wells are regulated “cradle to grave” and Michigan has a good track record protecting the environment.
Still, state and industry officials acknowledge no one can give 100 percent assurances that no failure or accident will happen. West Bay officials said their workers can respond to an accident scene within 15 minutes.
Norvell Township Supervisor Adam Ulbin complained strongly about damage to township roads caused by oil-company vehicles, which he said routinely violate township ordinances regulating truck traffic.
“Your trucks are on our roads day and night,” Ulbin told West Bay leaders. “It isn’t our cars that are tearing those roads apart. It’s your trucks. You need to help us out.”
Baker said West Bay has worked with the Jackson County Road Commission to pay money to help repair roads damaged by its vehicles.
“We’re open to any discussion relative to the roads,” Baker said. “We want to make sure we are not impacting the roads detrimentally.”
Baker also said truck traffic is heaviest when new wells are developed and drilled, and lessens dramatically in later production stages.
West Bay officials and Frank Mortl, president of the Michigan Oil and Gas Association, cited benefits of oil production to the area: Jobs for residents, taxes paid to government and the economic boost of royalties received by many property owners.
Some audience members complained about odors associated with oil drilling. Baker said odors tend to be worst early in the life of wells and should lessen soon.
“We are still early in the life of this field,” he said.