Traverse City Record-Eagle

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.

The plan was to clear about 3.5 acres of forest for a well site on federal land, then drill beneath the Mason Tract at an angle. If enough gas or oil was found, the company intended to install a pipeline and build a production facility about a mile east of the well.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management approved the project shortly after the Forest Service granted the permit. But it has been on hold since Lawson issued an order in December 2005 blocking the company from clearing land to get started.

Forest supervisor Leanne Marten said when approving Savoy's application that the project wouldn't significantly harm the environment and that the company would be required to keep noise to a minimum.

But the judge ruled the Forest Service didn't consider how degrading the area could harm tourism, and said the agency did a "woefully inadequate" job of evaluating how the drilling might affect the Kirtland's warbler, an endangered songbird that nests in the area.

Anglers of the AuSable and the Sierra Club sued to halt the drilling. Joining the suit was Tim Mason, whose grandfather, auto executive George Mason, donated the original 1,200 acres to the state upon his death in 1954 and asked that it be maintained as wilderness.

Lawson last week denied a request by Savoy to intervene in the case.