By JAMES DAU
Capital News Service
LANSING — A nine-year battle over natural gas drilling near a state-designated wilderness along the Au Sable River has ended with Savoy Energy’s withdrawal of its permit request.
In a letter to the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Traverse City-based oil and gas exploration company declared it is no longer interested in drilling near a section of the river famed for trout fishing and old-growth forest.
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 Michigan 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,” Roberson said.
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 that American Motors Corp. 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 where outdoors enthusiasts outdoorsmen can rest.
The proposed drilling pad would have been built within sight of the chapel on land just outside the Mason Tract’s boundaries. Drilling was to be angled to reach a gas deposit beneath the tract.
The project would also have required 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 said that Savoy could proceed.
The Anglers and Sierra Club won a federal 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,” he said. “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 a ruling that halted work under the Forest Service’s initial permit and required the agency to conduct a more comprehensive environmental impact review 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, and representatives of the company declined to comment. According to Theresa Bodus, an assistant field manager with BLM’s Mineral Resources group, the company’s withdrawal wasn’t driven by environmental concerns.
“People we’ve talked to in the industry, various insiders, suggest that Savoy’s decision was based on internal changes in the company and its direction with regard to its Michigan resources, rather than on the environmental impact it would have had or the protests,” said Bodus.
“We’ll see what these changes are in the next year or so as they become apparent. The BLM does not require a company to provide an explanation to us when they cancel a permit application, but this is what we’re hearing,” she said.
Although Savoy’s decision resolves the current situation, other firms could seek permits for natural gas drilling in the same region, the Anglers said.
James Dau writes for Great Lakes Echo.
By JAMES DAU