The Pigeon River Plan
In 1980 Michigan established the nation's best land use program for developing oil and gas reserves in a sensitive environment. Known as the Pigeon River Hydrocarbon Development Plan, it was the result of a hard-won compromise that state policy makers, the energy industry, and environmentalists hammered out over 10 years.
The Pigeon River Plan strictly limited the number of oil and gas wells in the Pigeon River Country State Forest. Energy companies also agreed to subject most aspects of drilling and exploration to monitoring by a citizen-led Advisory Council.
Most notably, the plan specified the location of drilling sites, access roads, pipelines, and processing plants in areas that would cause the least possible harm to the land, water, and wildlife. Oil and gas was tapped from 22 sites using directional drilling technology. Special rules reduced noise from processing plants, and required equipment to be screened from view or painted in colors that blended with the surroundings.
Because the wells were kept to the lowest number necessary, the need for new roads and pipelines cut through the forest also was minimized. Under the historic agreement, less than one-third of the Pigeon River Country State Forest was opened to drilling.
The Pigeon River Plan was written by a team of Department of Natural Resources staffers, with the cooperation of the energy industry and environmental organizations. It was the result of legal, economic, and political circumstances that had their origin in a 1968 decision by the DNR to lease more than 500,000 acres of public land in the northern Lower Peninsula for oil and gas development.
The huge lease sale unleashed a stampede of oil and gas exploration and an equally strong response by citizens who recognized the dire consequences to a magnificent stretch of wild land if the drilling was left unmanaged.
Over the next decade, the struggle to protect the Pigeon River Country was the highest-profile environmental policy dispute in Michigan. Out of it came:
*The new Pigeon River Country State Forest, which combined parts of four smaller forests.
* Persistent and timely intervention in the public interest by Gov. William G. Milliken.
* Adistinctive industry-drafted "unitization" agreement that made operations more efficient and environ- mentally sensitive. It called for Shell Oil to manage all operations in the Pigeon River field, and for the com- panies to divide up expenses and revenues according to an equitable formula.
*The most comprehensive environmental study ever conducted in Michigan on the potential adverse effects of energy development, which outlined the steps necessary to reduce the damage.
* Two historic lawsuits, one of them decided by the Michigan Supreme Court in 1979, that clarified the authority of state government and citizens to enforce environmental laws.
* Alegislative lobbying blitz by Shell Oil that undermined the Supreme Court decision, illustrated the receptivity of lawmakers to energy industry influence, and brought about the final compromise Pigeon River Plan in 1980.
In the more than 17 years that the plan has been in effect, it has performed much as intended. Damage from energy development in the Pigeon River Country was minimized as the forest yielded oil and gas worth more than $400 million.
Today's Need for Hydrocarbon Development Planning
Despite living up to expectations, hydrocarbon planning never was adopted as a model framework for use in other sensitive environments in Michigan. This has been a serious mistake.
During the past decade, northern Michigan has been the site of the most intensive natural gas development in the United States. Antrim Shale drilling, which has disfigured hundreds of thousands of acres of forest and damaged rivers and streams, has occurred without a cohesive management approach. The lapse in state oversight has put at risk the Lower Peninsula's last great wild places.