Despite numerous and boisterous complaints from residents, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality on Tuesday approved a drilling permit for a controversial, exploratory oil well on a Southfield church’s property. But neighbors vehemently opposed to having the project in a residential area vow to continue to fight.
The DEQ issued a permit for an exploratory oil well at the campus of the Word of Faith International Christian Center, run by Bishop Keith Butler, a former Detroit city councilman and GOP candidate for U.S. Senate. The church was approached last spring by Traverse City-based oil exploration company Jordan Development about the possibility of drilling on the church’s 110 wooded acres off West 9 Mile and Evergreen roads.
“The application had all of the information that is required in a permit application, and everything met all of the rules and regulations. It passed muster with all state requirements,” DEQ state Supervisor of Wells Harold “Hal” Fitch said.
The city has a moratorium on oil and gas development that runs through April 28, and is working on a new zoning ordinance that would limit drilling to only heavy industrial areas.
“We don’t enforce local ordinances; that’s up to the local government,” Fitch said. “We don’t generally override them, either, unless they interfere with our authority. I haven’t seen their draft ordinance, and I can’t say whether their moratorium would hold up in court.
“The fact they have a state permit doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t subject to other regulations, provided they are legal and enforceable.”
Skip Davis, a retiree who lives in the Magnolia subdivision a few blocks from the proposed well location, is strongly opposed to it.
“I can assure you this is not the end of it,” he said. “There are a number of options and appeals. The city has a briefcase full of options legally.”
Davis said he’s dismayed that the DEQ’s process rubber-stamps an oil well if it meets a checklist of requirements in an application.
“Our plea, our point of view is this goes beyond checking boxes and filling out forms,” he said. “This has to do with the impact on the surrounding community.”
Andrea Simpson, a spokeswoman for Word of Faith, said the church had no comment Tuesday. Simpson told the Free Press in January that potential revenue from the oil well would help the church in its mission.
“We help this community; we feed, we clothe,” she said. “We do our best to be a blessing to the people of this community, whether they are members of this church or not. ... That costs money. “We’re not going to do anything — we wouldn’t do anything — that harms our community, harms our neighbors, harms this land.”
The City of Southfield, in a statement Tuesday, said it “strongly opposes” the DEQ’s permit decision.
The city requested additional information on the well proposal from DEQ on Jan. 19 “that has still not been provided — despite MDEQ’s assurances that it would be, prior to any decision.” The city’s questions include how DEQ has determined fresh water wells near the drilling activities will be protected and how neighbors will be protected from potential air pollution, odors and glare during natural gas extraction activities.
“Recent issues involving the MDEQ have raised serious concerns about the department’s review process,” said Southfield City Administrator Fred Zorn in a statement Tuesday. “The safety of our residents should be of paramount concern to the MDEQ. That is why the city has requested that the MDEQ fully and completely address all of the issues that the city has presented to them.”
Jordan Development Vice President Ben Brower told the Free Press in January that the well, if viable, would never be “fracked,” referring to the controversial drilling practice of hydraulic fracturing, in which sometimes millions of gallons of water and often undisclosed chemicals are injected into the ground to break up mineral formations and enable the extraction of oil or gas. The geological formation in the Southfield area doesn’t lend itself to that drilling method, he said.
The company is interested in the Word of Faith property because seismic testing in the area revealed underground “anomalies” that could mean oil, Brower said. Should the test well prove successful and the company want to drill further at the church, a new permit process would be required by the DEQ.
Jordan Development has followed all of the requirements asked of it, Brower said.
“This is a 110-acre parcel that has lots of space, in a wooded area that’s screened on all sides,” he said. “There’s been hundreds of wells drilled in Oakland and Wayne county. It’s funny; people are acting as if this is the first well ever drilled there. It may be new to Southfield, but it’s not new to southeast Michigan.”
Southfield Mayor Kenson Siver wasn’t swayed.
“Drilling for oil and gas, no matter how safe Jordan Development claims, is totally incompatible with a residential area,” Siver said in a statement Tuesday.
State Rep. Jeremy Moss, a Democrat from Southfield, was critical of the DEQ’s decision.
“This action completely ignores the city’s lawful moratorium on oil and gas drilling within city limits, not to mention the strong opposition from residents who deserve a say in what happens in their own backyard,” Moss said in a statement. “I fully support the mayor and City Council’s efforts to defend and enforce the moratorium.”
Moss has sponsored a bill in the state House that would increase the required distance between residences and oil and gas wells, force drillers to comply with local regulations, and require the DEQ to consider input from a public hearing.
“We have seen adverse effects from this kind of drilling, and those effects would be multiplied in a densely populated area like Southfield,” he said. “Michigan law guarantees cities the right to home rule. But in this instance, state government has decided it knows best, and the erosion of local control continues.”