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Companies allowed to secretly drill test wells in Michigan

A natural gas drilling rig in Wyoming. Regulators in Michigan say they're ready to handle more of these drilling rigs.
Bureau of Land Management
A natural gas drilling rig in Wyoming. Regulators in Michigan say they're ready to handle more of these drilling rigs.

Residents of northern Michigan got a surprise last summer. They found out some drilling for oil and gas can be done confidentially. That unnerved some people in Emmet County, who now want their local government to do something about it.

When all the hubbub about fracking for oil and gas started up in Michigan a few years ago, Carrie Ketterer was alarmed. So, she went to a few meetings and did some research.

“But then we all got complacent. We thought, ‘they’re gone, and they’re not coming back,’ and then they came back,” says Ketterer.

Testing for oil and gas

Last June, a drill rig showed up in Bliss Township, a few miles from her home near Wilderness State Park.

Ketterer is pretty sure the drilling had nothing to do with the horizontal hydraulic fracturing that worries people like her. But she doesn’t actually know.

“When I asked the field rep from the DEQ if it was a well that would be fractured, he said ‘no comment,’” she says.

There was no comment because the operation was confidential.

There’s a provision in state law that allows a company to test, only test, for oil and gas without having to reveal what it’s doing.

If they find something and want to drill a full well, then a regular permit is required.

The test drilling is even exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

Hal Fitch directs the state Office of Oil, Gas, and Minerals.

“We get a lot of complaints from people they want more information. They see the drill rig, and they want more information about it, and we’re prevented by law from divulging anything, or much of anything about it,” he says.

This confidentiality provision is seldom used by the oil and gas industry.

One industry spokesman said the benefit is usually not worth the cost.

Hal Fitch says it’s more often used to test for other minerals, like limestone deposits in the Upper Peninsula.

But it stirred up people in Emmet County.

Getting local officials involved

Carrie Ketterer says it was upsetting to be told state law was written to protect investors.

“I thought the DEQ’s job was to protect the land, and the water and the air,” she says.

So Ketterer hopes her local government will get involved in this issue.

That’s something townships and counties almost never do.

In fact, just last week, Cannon Township near Grand Rapids became the first in Michigan to pass some rules that apply to the oil and gas industry.

They address potential problems like spills and water pollution.

Townships and counties in Michigan cannot ban drilling.

Next week in Petoskey, there’s a meeting to discuss what Emmet County might do.

Liz Kirkwood is with the group FLOW, For Love of Water. She’ll speak at the event. Kirkwood says local officials are reluctant to make rules for the oil and gas industry.

“You never want to enact an ordinance unless you are prepared to defend it. And some communities are ready to fight a legal battle and some are not,” she says.

Officials in Emmet County are just gathering information about the issue. The conversation started with the drilling last summer that was confidential. But ironically, it’s not clear that local ordinances could force test drilling like that out into the open for more public scrutiny.

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