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Posted: 09/03/14

WT explores options for minimizing drilling related operations

Observer Special Writer
      A controversial oil and gas drilling operation in neighboring Shelby Township has Washington officials investigating their options for minimizing the impact drilling and related activities can have on their community.
       At the Aug. 27 board meeting, Washington Township (WT) Supervisor Dan O'Leary and Washington Township legal counsel Bob Siebert provided insights into the township's legal recourse.
       The bottom line consensus: While there is little the township can do to prevent drilling operations within the township, there is the possibility of controlling where and how offshoot operations, such as processing facilities, are located.
       The topic arose out of Traverse City-based West Bay Exploration's drilling of an exploratory gas and oil well near 25 Mile and Dequindre roads, less than a mile from Washington's border. The company has temporarily, voluntarily halted operations.
       Of greater interest for WT officials is the prospect of a processing facility being located near the township's boundaries at 26 Mile and Mound. Such a facility could be built if West Bay finds deposits on the Shelby site.
       O'Leary and Siebert provided background on the township's options. According to Siebert, the placement and operation of oil and gas drilling operations is entirely under state control. Townships are defenseless in stopping such operations.
       Siebert cited the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act, which says that counties and townships shall not regulate or control the drilling, completion, or operation of oil or gas wells or other wells drilled for oil or gas exploration purposes.
       The law was enacted, Siebert says, because "this (drilling) is an activity that nobody wants. If you allow every local unit of government to regulate it, you're not going to have oil and gas exploration in the state. So the state legislature said `we are going to regulate it.'"
       When it comes to stopping oil exploration, he said townships don't have any inherent authority at all.
       "There is no exception to that rule," Siebert said.
       As for moratoriums on drilling, such as the one Shelby imposed after public outcry about West Bay, Siebert called them "knee-jerk reactions" that are not going to stand up in court.
       Where Washington Township might have room to maneuver is in the placement of processing operations related to the drilling.
       If West Bay finds hydrocarbon deposits in the Shelby location, it may want to locate a processing facility within range of the location. That facility could be located near 26 and Mound, within earshot of Crystal Creek and other high-end, million-dollar subdivisions.
       O'Leary said that is the matter at hand for Washington -- and where the fight is to be fought.
       "The legitimate concern is an industrial operation in the middle of a residential neighborhood causing noise, smell, quality of life, traffic and other issues," said O'Leary. "We don't typically put industrial operations in the middle of subdivisions. So that's a very legitimate concern."
       Siebert concurred and said Washington has legal ground upon which to base its case.
       He cited a 1990s case in Addison Township that made its way to the Michigan Supreme Court. In that case, the court said that local municipalities can regulate non-drilling operations such as processing plants that are located a certain distance away from the drilling spot.
       Siebert said what is unknown is that exact distance.
       "There have been no cases in which it (the court) said how far can you go to regulate (processing). But it's clear that you can," Siebert explained. "The Supreme Court and subsequent courts have told us that those (processing facilities) are fair game."
       As an example, Siebert said, if they drill this hole in Shelby and they want to process it in Washington, and local ordinances say that a processing facility must be sited in an industrial area and they want to site it in an agricultural area, the township has a fight it's going to win.
       In the meantime, O'Leary says, the township will explore its options and he will continue to take part in discussions with local and state leaders.
       As a former official with DTE and Michigan Consolidated Gas, O'Leary is well-versed on the ins-and-outs of drilling regulations and has posted his views on his website at

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