A controversial method of drilling for oil and gas could be coming to the Au Sable River, and to the most revered part of the watershed for anglers.
Leases to drill for oil and gas minerals under state land east of Grayling were sold to Encana at an October auction. The land in question is along the stretch of river called the Holy Waters and known for its trout fishing. The energy company has fracked deep shale wells in Kalkaska County and other parts of northern Michigan.
Even though the leases were auctioned they need final approval and a number of conservation groups want the state to reconsider. If the leases are approved they could still be reclassified so all the land is non-development. That would mean the gas could be extracted but the drilling would need to be done farther away and come in horizontally to exploit the minerals. As it stands now, drilling equipment would be allowed as close as 1,320 feet from the river in a few places.
A letter asking DNR Director Keith Creagh to not approve the leases was signed by representatives of Anglers of the Au Sable, the Sierra Club and the City of Grayling, among others. It says the Au Sable River is the "epicenter" of Michigan's multi-billion dollar sport fishing industry. The letter also raises questions about the state's ability to regulate the "massive" amounts of ground water needed to drill wells into deep shale formations.
Creagh is set to approve the leases Thursday when the issue will be discussed at a meeting of the Michigan Natural Resources Commission. The head of minerals management, Mary Uptigrove, says she can’t recall an instance in 20 years when the director didn’t approve a lease that had been auctioned.
Uptigrove says the leases are not permits to drill wells. Those will require additional review and the state will have the ability to address problems staff find with Encana's plans.