A Southfield church is looking to raise money not through bottle drives, car washes or passing the collection plate, but by installing an oil well on its property.
And that's got some in the community — including city officials — not exactly loving their neighbor.
Word of Faith International Christian Center, run by Bishop Keith Butler, a former Detroit city councilman and GOP candidate for U.S. Senate, 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, church spokeswoman Andrea Simpson said. Jordan Development has applied to the state Department of Environmental Quality for permission to drill a test well at the church to assess the viability of extracting oil there.
The proposed well calls attention to the limitations in newly revised state regulations for oil and gas development designed to tighten rules for drilling in densely populated, residential areas. Those revisions were instituted last February in a new state "instruction" at the recommendation of a DEQ-convened task force that included the Michigan Townships Association, the Michigan Oil and Gas Association and citizens. It was prompted by public outcry over an oil well drilled in August 2014 in Macomb County's Shelby Township, only about 500 feet from a residential neighborhood, that led to noisy drilling 24-7 for about three weeks, along with bright lights at night and truck and heavy equipment traffic.
But the tougher regulations apply only to proposed well locations in a county with a population of 750,000 or more, in sites zoned for residential use and where there are 40 or more occupied structures in any 90-degree quadrant within 1,320 feet of the well location. The first two requirements apply at the Word of Faith location. But there are only 35 occupied dwellings in a quadrant within 1,320 feet of the proposed well, DEQ Supervisor of Wells Hal Fitch said, meaning the area falls five dwellings short of having the new restrictions kick in.
"Nevertheless, the DEQ will consider requiring most of the restrictions from the instruction if a permit is to be issued," he said.
The potential revenue from an oil well would allow the church to further its mission work, Simpson said.
"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."
But those living near the church worry about the potential disruption to the environment, their quality of life and their property values.
The development will be close to residential neighborhoods, the Rouge River, businesses and schools. And trees on the Word of Faith property won't hide the project or its impacts, said Larry Quarles, 67, a retired engineer who lives in the Magnolia subdivision less than a mile away.
"I understand the need for the church to raise funds; at my church, we have a similar situation," he said. "But we would never, never do something like this. As a religious organization, we would never think of impacting neighbors or the community."
Added fellow Magnolia subdivision resident and retiree Skip Davis, 72: "This is the greatest threat our neighborhood has ever confronted, as far as I'm concerned.
"The overarching concern is just damage to the planet. We're on a watershed, with groundwater and tributaries to the Rouge River. There's a forest preserve just across the street. On a personal level, the impact to property values is a big concern. It isn't exactly an amenity to say I live just down the street from a future fracking well."
Jordan Development Vice President Ben Brower, however, said 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."
But it won't happen in Southfield if city officials get their way. The city instituted a moratorium on oil and gas development that runs through April 28.
"It's highly inappropriate in a residential area," Mayor Kenson Siver said. "We're concerned about possible environmental hazards, contamination, the loss of trees that will have to be removed in this woodland that's on their property. We don't know how much truck traffic, how this oil would be moved if there is oil there. We have a whole number of concerns."
If an oil well were fully developed on the property, additional traffic would consist of one pickup driving in to check on the well daily and a tanker truck to remove oil that would enter and exit no more frequently than every other day, Brower said. Truck traffic from a nearby gas station on 9 Mile is far more considerable, he said.
State Rep. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, recalled that when he served on the Southfield City Council with Siver in 2012, they sent a resolution to the DEQ demanding an examination of the health and environmental impacts of drilling in residential neighborhoods.
"There were some people in our community who kind of derided it, who said we were getting into issues that weren't relevant to Southfield," he said. "Here we are, almost four years later, living with the reality that this could happen in our community."
Whatever decision the DEQ makes on the well permit, the city's moratorium is lawful and should stop further action on the well, Moss said.
"I don't believe the state should disallow the community to catch its breath, do its due diligence and decide how to go forward," he said.
Fitch noted that state oil and gas permits emphasize that they do not preclude the necessity to obtain other federal, state or local permits which may apply.
Word of Faith officials had many of the same fears others in Southfield are expressing, Simpson said.
"We're not going to do anything — we wouldn't do anything — that harms our community, harms our neighbors, harms this land," she said.