Gas company scraps drilling plans near Au Sable River
A nine-year battle over natural gas drilling near a state-designated wilderness along Michigan’s Au Sable River recently ended when Savoy Energy withdrew its permit request.
In a Sept. 6 letter to the federal Bureau of Land Management, the Traverse City, Mich.-based oil and gas exploration company declared it was no longer interested in drilling near a section of the river famed for trout fishing and old growth forest.
The Michigan Chapter of the Sierra Club and Anglers of the Au Sable had sued to halt the proposal.
“I was pretty happy to hear the news,” said Marvin Roberson, the Sierra Club’s forest policy specialist. “It’s been nine years and I’m glad to see it resolved. We brought the policy and legal expertise, and the Anglers brought knowledge of the history and the land. It was a great combination and we really can’t give them enough credit.”
The dispute began in 2003 when Savoy sought a federal permit to drill on land immediately beside the Mason Tract, a section of the Au Sable River that American Motors President George Mason donated to Michigan in the 1950s.
“It’s a wild and solitary experience, being out on the Mason Tract,” Roberson said.
In memory of Mason, a rustic chapel was built on the site for outdoorsmen to rest.
The drilling pad would have been built within sight of the chapel on land just outside the Mason Tract’s boundaries. The drilling would be angled to reach a gas deposit beneath the tract. The project would also require new roadways and improvements to existing ones.
In 2004, the U.S. Forest Service announced that the proposed project was not expected to have a significant impact on the local environment and Savoy would be allowed to proceed.
The Anglers of the Au Sable and the Sierra Club won an injunction against the development in 2005 while U.S. District Court Judge David Lawson reviewed the Forest Service’s actions.
“The problem was that they wanted to situate the well head right next to the chapel,” Roberson said. “It would have disrupted the way people experienced the place, the way it looked and sounded. We weren’t concerned about there being a spill, what we wanted was for them to move their facility farther back from the tract so that people wouldn’t be able to see or hear it. All they would have had to do would be to drill at a sharper angle.”
In 2008 Lawson issued an opinion that halted work under the Forest Service’s initial permit and required the Forest Service to conduct a more comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement before work could resume.
It was under this climate that Savoy wrote the Bureau of Land Management ending its pursuit of the permit.
The reason for Savoy’s withdrawal is unclear. Representatives of the company declined to comment. “Nine and a half years later this battle has come to an end,” Bruce Pregler, president of Anglers of the Au Sable, said in a press release, “This victory is a tribute to our organization’s staying power and commitment to protecting our forests and rivers for future generations.”
But while Savoy’s decision resolves the current situation, other firms could seek permits for natural gas drilling in the same region, Anglers of the Au Sable noted in its press release.