‘Fracking’ authority debate ignites

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‘Fracking’ authority debate ignites

By Christopher Behnan

February 9, 2014

FOWLERVILLE, MI – Fighting big oil would be a costly proposition for any local government.

That doesn’t mean local officials don’t have legal ground to challenge drilling operations, including those that use hydraulic fracturing to maximize oil and gas extraction from rock formations, environmental officials said last week.

That’s particularly the case when drilling that uses high-volume “fracking” transports hazardous materials on public roads, disrupts peaceful communities or draws millions of gallons of water from local water supplies, they added.

The ability of local governments to regulate drilling operations has been front and center since Texas-based GeoSouthern Energy Corp. received a state drilling permit allowing injection of 3 million gallons of water, sand and chemicals on private property in Conway Township.

Environmental groups, including Traverse City-based For Love of Water, the state Department of Environmental Quality and the oil and gas industry often have different views on the local-rule issue.

Each is armed with voluminous case law they claim supports its views.

Last week, FLOW gave Conway Township and other local officials an overview of hydraulic fracturing in Michigan and discussed local ordinances it said empower local governments.

FLOW Chairman Jim Olson said local governments have a host of regulatory powers over drilling sites, including under Michigan’s Zoning Enabling Act and state law that favors public health and safety over commercial interests.

State law doesn’t allow local governments to regulate the location of drilling projects or prohibit drilling practices, including hydraulic fracturing, but does allow regulation of noise, air pollution, use of hazardous substances, Olson said.

“You can actually pass ordinances and regulate pretty much any activity that causes interference with the use and enjoyment of property of the community lands and parks and schools,” Olson said.

Because the zoning act only prohibits regulation of drilling wells, local governments also can regulate several “ancillary activities” such as related storage, chemical mixing, pumping activities and truck traffic, Olson added. He said local officials can require site plans from oil and gas companies for their projects.

He said local governments can require drilling permit applicants to submit environmental impact statements to local units under Michigan’s Environmental Protection Act.

Current law doesn’t require oil or gas companies to disclose chemicals used in the fracking process, but officials can require disclosure of chemicals transported on local roads, he added.

“You can say, ‘Well, here’s our roads. You’re going to have to tell us what you’re hauling on these roads and what you’re disposing,” while using the roads, Olson said.

DEQ oversight of operations

Exclusion of drilling oversight in the zoning act leaves jurisdiction over drilling and related operations such as fracking in the hands of the director of the state Department of Environmental Quality, said Adam Wygant, section chief with the DEQ’s Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals.

Wygant on Wednesday will discuss oil and gas operations with Livingston County officials.

Local governments have a say when oil and gas companies want to establish ancillary operations, such as treatment or equipment-storage facilities separate from drilling sites, however, he added.

Local officials can pass bans and moratoriums, but they will not be enforced under current law because the DEQ director, as Michigan’s supervisor of wells, has exclusive oversight of drilling operations, Wygant said.

“We believe our authority is what it is and what has been upheld by case law,” he said.

FLOW’s Olson said it’s possible, but unlikely, for local officials to impose a ban or moratorium on drilling or fracking. That’s in large part because private landowners have the right to lease their lands as they see fit, Olson said.

He said townships would have to prove there is no way to allow hydraulic fracturing anywhere within its boundaries without harming the health and safety of residents.

“You would have to prove that in court, so it’s a pretty tough burden,” Olson said.

FLOW recommended that Conway Township consider drafting several ordinances, including requiring notification of drilling permits to the public and Board of Trustees before drilling begins; requiring companies to pay for water testing for residents within 2 miles of drilling sites before work begins; and requiring a road bond for possible repairs on company truck routes.

The DEQ in October announced proposed rules based on residents’ concerns about hydraulic fracturing, including installation of monitor wells and water sampling in certain conditions; notification to the state if hydraulic fracturing is expected to be used; and disclosure of chemical properties and concentrations used.

Environmental groups were not satisfied with the DEQ’s proposal.

Contact Daily Press & Argus reporter Christopher Behnan at 517-548-7108 or at Follow him @LCLansingGuy on Twitter.

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