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Drilling In Jordan Valley

A reckless act

December 1, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

The Department of Environmental Quality is poised to break a 21-year state policy and allow a natural gas well on public land in the Jordan Valley, one of the last great stands of wild forest in the Lower Peninsula.

After seven years of intensive oil and gas development that has marred hundreds of thousands of acres of public land in the North Woods, the Jordan Valley remains a place apart. Its breathtaking river winds through forested hills, amid a quiet so perfect that at this time of year, the only sound is of snowflakes falling.

The proposed well would be in the very center of the Jordan Valley, which is as important to the character and economy of northern Michigan as the Yosemite Valley is to northern California. To move the gas to market, a pipeline would have to be cut along two miles of a scenic forest road, and cross two tributaries of the Jordan River. Allowing the well also would set a precedent that could open the valley to even more wells, roads, pipelines, and processing stations.

The Institute, joined by the Friends of the Jordan River Watershed, is rallying public support to block the well, and will take legal action if necessary.

The Department of Natural Resources also has vowed to prevent the drilling. The DNR has the authority, which is recognized by the Antrim County Road Commission, to end the drilling plans by denying a pipeline easement across state land. But in a highly unusual move, the DEQ is challenging the DNR's authority to manage state lands for oil and gas development.

At issue is a 40-acre parcel covered by the Jordan Valley Management Plan, overseen by the DNR, which prevents industrial development in 22,000 acres of the Mackinaw State Forest. An Elmira businessman, Walter Zaremba, leased the mineral rights to that parcel from a private mineral owner in 1994. Now Mr. Zaremba wants to drill an Antrim gas well there.

On December 12, the DEQ agreed to Mr. Zaremba's request and waived its 80-acre spacing requirement for Antrim wells. The decision came just nine days after a DEQ hearing on the request at which representatives of the Institute, the Friends of the Jordan River Watershed, and even the Department of Natural Resources were prohibited from testifying.

Also on December 12, just hours before the DEQ issued its waiver, the Antrim County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a resolution opposing "any attempt to drill on state-owned surface lands within the Jordan Valley." The Commissioners also formally supported the work of the Institute and Friends of the Jordan to defend the valley.

The Commissioners directed that the resolution be sent immediately to Governor Engler. "We see this as a statewide issue that all citizens must pay attention to," said Conrad Friedemann, the Commission chairman.

The next step is for the DEQ to grant or deny Mr. Zaremba's application for a permit to drill. The Institute and the Friends of the Jordan will vigorously contest any attempt by the DEQ to allow drilling in the Jordan Valley.

On November 20, in the first salvo of the Zaremba battle, DEQ director Russell Harding issued a stunning order. It asserted that the DEQ can "force pool" DNR lands to assist private mineral owners in forming a drilling unit, and that the DNR's management authority is "subservient."

Hal Fitch, the DEQ Assistant Supervisor of Wells, said the order was based on his agency's interpretation of the state oil and gas act. James Olson, the Institute's legal counsel in the Zaremba case, called Mr. Harding's order an "unconstitutional grab for power," and an unprecedented attack on the DNR's authority to manage public lands.

Exactly why the DEQ is pushing so hard to open the Jordan Valley is unclear. Mr. Fitch told the Traverse City Record Eagle that his agency essentially has no choice, because Mr. Zaremba has a right to develop his minerals. Otherwise, Mr. Fitch said, Mr. Zaremba could sue for a "taking" of his private property, and the state might have to pay a claim.

Mr. Olson, though, argues that Mr. Zaremba purchased the minerals as part of a speculative investment in 1994, almost 20 years after the agency implemented its management plan. Thus, he said, a "takings" claim would have far less legal weight when countered by the public's right to unspoiled natural areas.

There is yet another component to this inter-agency power struggle. Still to be addressed is the DNR's until-now undisputed jurisdiction over the surface lands within the Jordan Valley. Will the DEQ challenge the DNR's authority when it comes to establishing easements for roads and pipelines? How will the DNR respond?

One more important aspect of the case is the DEQ's treatment of the public, illustrated by the decision to bar outside testimony at the December 3 hearing. According to Mr. Olson, this was a complete breakdown of the state's obligation to ensure that public land decisions are made with adequate public involvement, and with careful consideration of the environmental effects.u

Contacts: Hans Voss or Keith Schneider at the Institute (616-882-4723), or John Hummer at the Friends of the Jordan River Watershed (616-533-5063). See page 24 for more information about what you can do to defend the Jordan Valley.

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