Department of Natural Resources to decide if Canadian company Encana can drill for oil and gas near Au Sable River Holy Waters corridor by Cole Waterman, December 11, 2013, mlive.com
An emotional battle is brewing on the shores of the Au Sable River — one that pits property owners, nature lovers and environmentalists against the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. At stake is whether about 2,800 acres of property in a section of the river known as the Holy Waters is to be leased, primarily to a Canadian company, which could eventually drill for oil and natural gas on the land. “This is one of the premiere locations to fly fish in Michigan,” said Bruce Pregler, president of the nonprofit group Anglers of the Au Sable, which is a leading critic of the DNR’s plan to lease the acreage. “It’s a gem in the state when it comes to fly fishing waters. It’s been given the name ‘Holy Waters’ for obvious reasons.” On Oct. 28, the DNR auctioned off the rights to the land, located in Crawford County roughly from Thendara Road west to the city Grayling. Calgary-based Encana Corp. purchased the bulk of the leases.
The last opportunity for the DNR to opt against finalizing the leases is at a meeting of the Natural Resources Commission set for 1 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 12, at the Lansing Center, 333 E. Michigan Ave. in Lansing. At the meeting, DNR Director Keith Creagh is scheduled to make a decision on the issue. He can offer three possible recommendations — that the leases be canceled, that they be allowed but with prohibitions on surface activities or that the leases be sold and the areas opened for drilling and development. Pregler is among those planning to testify during Thursday’s meeting. “This is an area, in our opinion, that needs to stay pure (and) clean,” Pregler said. “Hopefully what we can impress on the NRC council is that the extraction of minerals, whether oil or gas, pales in comparison to the economic lifeblood of this region. Our estimates are such that the amount of royalties that can be gleaned from this is about half the value of one river home. From an economic point of view, from an environmental point of view, it makes no sense.”
She added, “Encana would have exclusive rights to pursue development of those rights if they so choose.” On its website, Encana describes itself as “a leading North American energy producer that is focused on growing its strong portfolio of diverse resource plays producing natural gas, oil and natural gas liquids.” Dock Hock, a spokesman for the company said Encana is looking to enhance its land portfolio in northern Michigan. “We already had some acreage in that area, and this was really to fill out our acreage position there,” he said.
“The most pristine place in Michigan”
The Au Sable River, a tributary from Lake Huron, runs 138 miles with a drainage basin of 1,932 square miles encompassing parts of Otsego, Montmorency, Crawford, Iosco, Alcona, Roscommon, Ogemaw and Oscoda counties. The DNR states it is unique among rivers in the United States, having the most stable flow of all waterways in the nation. The Holy Waters corridor is described by the DNR as follows: “an 8.7-mile reach on the mainstream that begins just east of the city of Grayling in Crawford County, the Holy Water meanders from Burton’s Landing to Wakeley Bridge and is known for its wadable water, dependable insect hatches and quality trout fishing.”
“If Rusty was still alive, he’d be having a heart attack,” said Gena Gates. “He was a master of inspiring others to get off their duff and fight for these kinds of things … in the name of saving the Au Sable River.” Gena Gates called the Holy Waters area one of the most pristine in the state. “There are homes here and there. That’s what makes this river, at least that stretch of it, so pristine. There’s no commercial property,” said Gates. “It’s unfortunate the DNR is not doing its job to protect our natural resources, but rather is allowing the raping of our natural resources. They pick the most pristine place in Michigan to turn over to an oil company.”
In the summer of 2013, Encana unveiled plans to drill 500 new natural gas wells in Northern Michigan via fracking. … David Smith, president of the Au Sable Property Owners Association, describes the potential development as invasive and devastating. He said drilling in the area could lead to such blights as noise, smell, heavy traffic on already less-than-stellar roads, river pollution and declining property values. “I’m certain most of the people that decided to invest in property on the river, which is arguably the most expensive property in the county, have … made that decision, made that choice, based on that they like the quiet, the solitude, the peace,” Smith said. “To have a gas well being developed next door to you destroys that, absolutely destroys that.”
“I understand the economic and energy needs of this country,” he continued, “but no one would ever suggest putting a gas well on Mackinac Island or on the lawn of the Capitol building. There are some places gas wells don’t belong and I suggest that the Au Sable River is one of those, and I’ll extend that to any river in Michigan.”
Hock said Encana officials also have heard the voices of opposition. “We’ve heard those … and we understand that they do have some concerns around environmental issues,” he said. “I think one of the things we looked at is, if there is another way to access (the gas and oil) without those leases, we would look at that. We’ll wait for decision then decide from there how to move ahead.” [Emphasis added]