Anglers of the Au Sable Win Fight to Stop Mason Tract Drilling

“What began with a bang nearly a decade ago appears to have ended with a whimper,” says the press release from Anglers of the Au Sable, which began fighting proposed drilling under the Mason Tract nature refuge almost a decade ago.  The group announced today that Savoy Energy has withdrawn its application for drilling.

Read the press release below for full details.

PRESS RELEASE

DATE: September 20, 2012

TO: Michigan media and other interested parties

FROM: ANGLERS OF THE AU SABLE

CONTACT: Bruce M Pregler, (586) 381-8406, EMAIL: bpregler@frplaw.com

Savoy Energy Withdrawals Application to Drill Oil and Gas Well on Mason Tract

What began with a bang nearly a decade ago appears to have ended with a whimper.

Savoy Energy LP (Savoy), a Traverse City based oil and gas company, that created a firestorm of opposition when it applied for a permit to directionally drill a well under The Mason Tract, one of the most beloved nature refuges in the country, has decided to withdraw its application.  One of the Plaintiffs, Anglers of the Au Sable, in the lawsuit to halt the drilling, comments on Savoy’s decision to withdraw its most recent application:

”Our journey through the legal process started back in June of  2003, when environmental icon Rusty Gates, organized a group of volunteer lawyers to review the plans of Savoy.  At that initial meeting we knew we had to take steps to stop the incremental encroachment of development into this beautiful river corridor.  Nine and a half years later this battle has come to an end. This victory is a tribute to our organization’s staying power and commitment to protecting our forests and rivers for future generations.  This battle has been won, but rest assured the Anglers will remain vigilant. We will continue to monitor actions which may negatively impact our beloved watershed.  On behalf of the Anglers, I wish to thank all the volunteers who freely gave of their time to work on this matter.  Our members’ passion to protect and preserve is what makes the Anglers such a powerful voice in defending the environs of the Au Sable River.” – Bruce Pregler, President of the Anglers of the Au Sable

Savoy’s decision to withdraw its application follows a lengthy administrative and legal struggle.  Savoy’s initial plan to drill by the Mason Tract Chapel caused an unprecedented public outcry, including over 500 comments received by the US Forest Service in opposition of the permit, and series of legal setbacks starting with an injunction in 2005 by a Federal Magistrate and a ruling by Federal Judge David M. Lawson in 2008 that Savoy’s drilling plan violated several guidelines of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

In spite of these decisions Savoy filed for another drilling permit in spring 2010.  This time, however, an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) would be conducted before any application would be approved.  An EIS sets a much higher standard for any activity on National Forest land.

The EIS coupled with continued concern from conservation groups and recreational users of the area likely meant that any mineral extraction operation would have a number of special considerations applied to it.

A draft of the EIS was being prepared and would have been available as later this year.  Thereafter, the Forest Service would have again requested public comment.  Savoy’s withdrawal of its permit ends the Forest Service obligation to move forward, as there is no pending permit application.

The Mason Tract is a 4,700 acre wilderness area which was established in the 1950s by a gift from auto executive and naturalist George Mason to the State of Michigan conditioned on a promise by the State that land remain undeveloped and never sold.  The South Branch of the Au Sable flows through the tract.  As tribute to George Mason, a Chapel was constructed as a sanctuary for fisherman, hikers, bicyclists, skiers and canoeists on the South Branch’s banks.

In 2002, the United States Bureau of Land Management (BLM) with the consent of the US Forest Service (FS) began leasing 9,500 acres within the Huron-Manistee National Forest of subsurface federal gas and oil resources.  A portion of this acreage parallels the Mason Tract.  Savoy obtained three federal and three state subsurface mineral leases with the Huron-Manistee National Forest totaling 640 acres.  A portion of this acreage was located in close proximity to the Mason Tract Chapel and the South Branch of the Au Sable.

In May 2003, Savoy filed its application with the BLM to drill a directional gas well from one of its lease holdings.  Directional drilling is starting a hole on the surface (top hole) and drilling to a location not directly below the top hole, but where the gas or oil may be located (bottom hole).  The plan called for a top hole in close proximity to the Mason Tract Chapel and the South Branch targeting natural gas (bottom hole) beneath the Mason Tract.

The proposal also called for the clearing and grading of a 5 acre well pad, installation of a brine pit and pump equipment, installation of a production facility approximately 1.5 miles from the top hole, the creation of new roads and widening and improving of existing roads as well as a pipeline to be installed along the roads.  All of this activity would occur within the designated “Semi-primitive Non-motorized area.”

In response to Savoy’s application the FS issued an Environmental Assessment (EA) and a Biological Assessment (BA) in August 2004 and found that Savoy’s proposed project was not expected to have a significant impact on the surrounding area.

The public vehemently disagreed.

In June 2005, Anglers of the Au Sable, Tim Mason (grandson of George Mason), and Mackinac Chapter of the Sierra Club commenced a lawsuit in Federal Court seeking to halt the proposed drilling operations of Savoy, claiming that the FS and BLM had violated their duties required of them under NEPA, the National Forest Management Act and the Mineral Leasing Act by approving Savoy’s project.

In December of that year, they won a motion for a preliminary injunction halting Savoy’s project until a final decision is rendered.  The following summer Federal Magistrate Charles E. Binder recommended a full injunction stating, “The defendants failed to adhere to NEPA’s guidelines and therefore acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner in issuing the (permit).”

This recommendation was reviewed for over two years.  In 2008, Judge David Lawson issued an opinion that halted any drilling based upon the permit issued by the FS.

In reaching this conclusion, Judge Lawson found that again and again that the FS failed to consider alternatives to the drilling project:

“Here the Forest Service’s consideration of alternatives was faulty for two reasons: first, it did not take the requisite “hard look” at the No Action alternative, since it mistakenly considered itself obligated by both policy and by the terms of Savoy’s lease to adopt an action alternative; second, the agency impermissibly narrowed the range of alternatives by only considering those consistent with Savoy’s project objectives, rather than the Forest Service goals.”

In the Court’s opinion, the FS rationale was slanted toward permitting Savoy to drill and its analysis of impact upon the area and wildlife was flawed.

While Savoy’s decision to withdraw its application is good news for the lovers of the Mason Tract and South Branch of the Au Sable, it does not mean that an oil and gas well may not someday be constructed near the Mason Tract.

Further information on this story can be obtained by contacting, Bruce Pregler, President of the Anglers of the Au Sable or Marvin Roberson, Forest Policy Specialist of the Mackinac Chapter of the Sierra Club.

 

 

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