Traverse City Record-Eagle

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December 19, 2008

Mason Tract drilling ban upheld

Government won't appeal judge's ruling

TRAVERSE CITY -- The government has decided not to appeal a federal judge's ruling that blocked oil and gas drilling in a sensitive riverside area in northern Michigan.

U.S. District Judge David Lawson ruled in July the U.S. Forest Service had acted "arbitrarily and capriciously" in 2005 by giving Savoy Energy LP of Traverse City a permit to drill an exploratory well near the Au Sable River's south branch.

The proposed wellhead would be located in the Huron-Manistee National Forest about three-tenths of a mile from the Mason Tract, a 4,679-acre wilderness area prized by anglers and other outdoor recreationists.

Justice Department spokesman Andrew Ames said Friday there would be no appeal, declining to elaborate. The national forest office declined comment.

Groups that opposed the drilling praised the government's decision to drop the case.

"This portion of the Au Sable is the most pristine trout stream in the Lower Peninsula," said Rusty Gates, president of Anglers of the AuSable. "People come here from all over the world to enjoy the beauty and solitude afforded by this river. We're glad to see that it remains protected."

A message seeking comment was left with Savoy.

The decision doesn't necessarily stop the company from extracting the gas and oil, said Marvin Roberson, forest policy specialist for the Sierra Club. The Forest Service could perform an environmental impact study that would consider alternative locations for the drilling. Or Savoy could submit a revised application.

"We have never objected to Savoy getting to this mineral deposit," Roberson said. "We simply want them to move the wellhead farther from this spectacular area."

Although the Mason Tract is state property, the federal government owns rights to minerals beneath it and leased production rights to Savoy. In 2003, the company filed for a permit to drill into one of its lease holdings.

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