Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Anglers group cautions about drilling near Au Sable River

By JEFF GILLIES
Capital News Service

LANSING — Protecting northern Michigan trout streams from the potential threats of oil and gas development will take some watch-dogging by a fishing and conservation organization, according to a report commissioned by the group.

The group, Anglers of the Au Sable, has a history of going to court over oil and gas issues. To prepare for what could come next, it commissioned environmental author and former Muskegon Chronicle reporter Jeff Alexander to investigate the region’s gas and oil infrastructure and a controversial method of natural gas extraction that could become more common there.

The report acknowledges the industry’s importance in northern Michigan, and the authors, Alexander and Anglers Vice President John Bebow, said it’s not an “anti-oil industry manifesto.”

For example: “Pumping millions of gallons of oil across thousands of miles of land and many lakes and rivers on a daily basis keeps the region’s economy running smoothly,” the report said. “Oil and gas exploration has long played an important role in northern Michigan’s economy and will continue to provide revenue and jobs for the foreseeable future.”

The report pays a lot of attention to a 58-year-old oil pipeline underneath the Au Sable and two of its tributaries. The pipeline is owned by Enbridge Inc., which also owns the pipeline that ruptured last July and spilled about 800,000 gallons of oil into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River in the southwest part of the state.

Several inspections in the last decade show the Enbridge pipeline under the Au Sable and both Big Creek tributary systems is in good condition, according to federal records and company officials.

The Anglers report called the company’s response to concerns over the risk of a potential spill “swift and thorough.”

Yet it cited eight incidents where problems with Enbridge pipelines caused millions of dollars in damage and caused two deaths in Great Lakes states.

Two leaks in Bay County in 2003 and 2005 spilled a combined 600 barrels of oil and caused $165,000 in property damage, according to a congressional committee report. A third leak in Monroe County in 2003 spilled 130 barrels of oil and caused $255,000 in property damage.

Also detailed are possibly severe consequences of a hypothetical spill on the Au Sable.

“According to federal government documents, a worst-case scenario could result in a spill of 1.5 million gallons of light crude into the Au Sable River in eight minutes,” the report said.

That’s nearly twice as much oil as leaked into the Kalamazoo River over the course of the 2010 spill. Additionally, the Au Sable’s cold-water ecosystem is more fragile, its fishery is more valuable and its slower flow would take longer to flush the oil out, according to the report.

It also discussed concerns in northern Michigan over a potential boom in a controversial method of natural gas extraction called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The method allows drillers to reach natural gas within shale deposits like the Collingwood formation that runs under the Au Sable and elsewhere through northern Michigan.

Records from the Department of Environmental Quality’s Office of Geological Survey show that fewer than 10 wells have been drilled so far into the Collingwood none of them in the Au Sable watershed, the report said.

However, Encana Corp., a Canadian energy company that uses fracking, bought the rights to drill in thousands of acres near the Au Sable and Manistee rivers at a state auction last October.

Alan Boras, Encana’s vice president of media relations, said, “Fundamentally, we work very, very hard to make sure we don’t impact the environment, and particularly that we don’t impact surface water.”

Concerns about fracking raised in the Anglers report include:

  • Toxic chemicals: Fracking involves high-pressure injection underground of toxic chemicals that critics say could contaminate groundwater or surface water if something goes wrong.
  • Water use: Fracking requires an immense amount of water — typically 3 to 8 million gallons per well. The water is permanently removed from the aquifer it’s withdrawn from, either remaining deep underground or trucked off-site for disposal.
  • Regulation: Fracking is exempt from many water protection laws, including provisions of federal Safe Drinking Water Act and a Michigan law that prevents large water withdrawals from harming nearby streams.

Boras said the natural gas industry is well-regulated, especially against adverse environmental impacts.

Thomas Wellman, the mineral and land manager for the Department of Natural Resources’ forest section, agrees, according to the report.

In an e-mail to Anglers, he wrote, “The regulatory requirements and geological conditions in Michigan ensure that hydraulic fracturing continues to be done safely.”

A thick layer of rock separates the Collingwood shale from important aquifers, Wellman wrote.

Jeff Gillies writes for Great Lakes Echo.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

 

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