Rochester Hills residents fight to prevent oil and gas drilling in town

By Danielle Prieur

Spring evenings in Rochester Hills, Michigan, have been the same for decades.  High school students move in a line in front of the glass windows of the gym. They practice their flag routine to the sound of whistles and the marching band that performs in the parking lot to their right. Their flags flutter in the cool air, mimicking the movement of the giant American flag above them.

And on the path in front of the high school, people from the subdivisions that surround the school on all sides take their walks. Retired couples stroll hand in hand. Fathers run with the family dog as their children bike or roller blade in front of them. They watch the flag team and marching band practice, proud of their neighborhood school’s football team and already excited about fall football.

They’ve watched Adams High School win football games and most of the children in the subdivision have attended Adams and Van Hoosen Middle School next to it. But this spring evening, life in Rochester Hills is also very different. Or many people fear it could be soon.

“Don’t Drill the Hills,” a Rochester Hills citizens’ group, lost a lawsuit that pitted them against their city, Jordan Bay Development, and Sunoco Pipeline in March. That means, now that the weather is warm again, a spike in natural gas and oil prices could bring drilling to the wooded park near the walking path. That is, unless “Don’t Drill the Hills” submits an appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court.

Usually home to the Rochester deer population, a forgotten candy wrapper or can left behind by the high school students, Tienken Road Park could soon house something Rochester Hills has never seen before: equipment used in natural gas and oil production and a fleet of trucks used to export barrels of natural gas and crude oil.

Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Michael Talbot in his per curium ruling issued in March stated that natural gas and oil production in Rochester Hills would not change Tienken Road Park. He based his opinion on the definition of a “park” as the surface land alone.

“A park is commonly understood in terms of the surface, and the Jordan Development lease only concerns subsurface oil and gas and does not appear, from the document, to have any effect on the surface of parks or on any use of the park as a park,” Talbot’s ruling stated.

But people in Rochester Hills are as concerned about what happens on the surface of the parks, as they are about what happens below them.

The Beginning: The Lease is Signed
Rochester Hills City Mayor Bryan Barnett is a charismatic man, a family man. He has led Rochester Hills, a city of 72,000, for a decade through some of its most prosperous economic times.

As a result of his efforts, in 2014 Rochester Hills was ranked as one of the best places to live by Money Magazine. He can be seen on the Rochester Hills City YouTube channel in his mayoral vlogs and with his family in a trailer before movies at the local Emagine Theater in Rochester Hills.

But on January 15, 2013, he surprised people in Rochester Hills by signing a lease with Jordan Bay Development approved by the City Council. The natural gas and oil company based in Traverse City, Michigan, was given rights to explore for and drill for natural gas and oil in two parks and a historic cemetery in Rochester Hills.

The second paragraph of the lease posted on the Rochester Hills City website reads:

“The Lessor may acquire by operation of law, reversion, or otherwise, herein called ‘said land,’ exclusively for the purposes of exploring by geophysical and other methods, drilling, mining, operating for and producing oil and/or gas, together with all rights, privileges and easements useful or convenient in connection with the foregoing and in connection with treatment, storing, caring for, transporting and removing oil and/or gas of whatsoever nature or kind, including coal seam methane gas, produced from said land or any other land adjacent thereto, including but not limited to rights to lay pipelines, build roads, drill, establish and utilize wells and facilities for disposition of water, brine or other fluids, and for enhanced production and recovery operations, and for purposes of conducting gas storage operations, and construct tanks, power, and communication lines, pump and power stations, and other structures or facilities.”

Sure sounds like a lot of change both on the surface and below it, according to a statement released by Don’t Drill the Hills.

The lease grants Jordan Bay Development along with West Bay Exploration Company, another natural gas and oil company based in Traverse City, rights to explore, drill, mine, conduct gas storage operations, construct tanks, power lines, pump and power stations and any other structures or facilities necessary in Tienken Road Park along with Nowicki Park and historic Van Hoosen Cemetery.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality warned that the city will have to contend with noise, bright lights, dust, and the general smell made by a natural gas and oil production unit at a Rochester Hills Planning Commission meeting if drilling goes ahead.

John Staran, the attorney who represents the City of Rochester Hills, doesn’t live in Rochester Hills. He is a long-time resident of Farmington Hills where he is actively involved in the local hockey league. He helped advise the city on the lease and doesn’t think drilling in Rochester Hills will become a reality any time soon.

“What happens in Michigan, in order to be able to go ahead and get a drilling permit from the state of Michigan, is that they need to establish a drilling unit – at minimum in a quarter section which is 140 acres. They need to show the state that they have acquired the rights within the quarter section,” said Staran.

According to Hal Fitch of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the state does require a city like Rochester Hills to, “establish a drilling unit for each formation in each area of the state 40 acres to 640 acres and that is the place where a person can drill one well. They have to have a certain setback distance and control over at least a majority of mineral rights in each unit and definitely control of mineral rights” before it would issue it a drilling permit.

Even with these regulations in place, however, Staran said the 140 acres doesn’t necessarily need to be counted using consecutive units by potentially bypassing acres of disapproving people in the city. He also said acres in neighboring cities could count towards the total, making it easier to get the required 140 acres.

But in the “Administrative Questions for MDEQ, West Bay and Jordan Development for Thornridge HOA,” posted on the Rochester Hills City website, it appears that Jordan Development and West Bay Exploration already have all the acres they need.

“We have entered into hundreds of leases covering over 800 acres of land in the Rochester Hills area and over 2,000 leases covering over 40,000 acres in Oakland County. West Bay has secured nearly 50% or more of homeowner leases in three subdivisions in Rochester Hills,” notes the question and answer sheet which the city compiled on its website.

The same information was repeated in a January 2014 memo to Mayor Barnett from Patrick Gibson, the vice president of West Bay Exploration, available on the website.

“We have now acquired approximately 400 individual leases in the City. This completes the initial leasing phase of our exploration program and we have suspended leasing at this time. Our short term plan is to drill an exploratory well in Auburn Hills in the next four to six months. Based on the results of that well we may permit a well including minerals in Rochester Hills in late 2014 or 2015. We will continue to keep you posted on our progress,” Gibson stated in the memo. Luckily, this hasn’t happened yet.

“From what we know there has been no drilling site leased within the city of Rochester Hills,” Staran said. But he hasn’t ruled it out either. “At this point there is no active oil exploration or development or none planned that we’re aware of, but we all know things change. Who knows?” John Staran, Rochester Hills city attorney.

The Middle: People Protest
One of the communities near Adams High School is Thornridge subdivision. The worn wooden sign that welcomes people to Thornridge is on an elevated berm looking out over a historic red barn and an acre of what used to be a grassy pasture for horses across Adams Road. At one time, the road ended shortly after the Thornridge sign. With the road open, people in Thornridge have concerns about the traffic safety of runners, bikers, and walkers who use the path that picks up in front of the subdivision.

That was before they heard about the oil and gas lease at a Thornridge Home Owners’ Association meeting in 2013.

They would have protested sooner, but the mayor and City Council had only released this information to a limited number of homeowners they felt would be directly affected by the lease.

Thornridge residents are concerned whether Jordan Development and West Bay Exploration would use the newly opened road for their trucks if production starts, and what the effects of drilling only a few miles from densely populated communities and schools would be.

The advocacy group “Don’t Drill the Hills” formed by Rochester Hills residents called for a ban on drilling or at least a referendum vote on the lease which they had been denied by the mayor and city council. Thornridge residents expressed deep concerns both at homeowners’ association meetings and Rochester Hills City Council meetings. They live closest to the proposed natural gas and oil production at Tienken Park Road.

Clark Barrett is a Rochester Hills resident and member of “Don’t Drill the Hills.” He is a quiet, soft-spoken man, but  when he spoke before the Rochester Hills City Council meeting on April 7, 2014, his voice and his message were loud and clear. He read a list of eight “accidents” caused by natural gas and oil production in the United States over the past decade, including a breach in Rochester Hills.

“Rochester Hills, Michigan, May 2, 2005: Just after 10 p.m. a 26″ gas main ruptured. Local residents evacuated their homes for at least 2 hours. Adams High School was briefly opened as an emergency shelter,” said Barrett. “Most of these are local or very recent examples. We’ve been told, in this forum, that we shouldn’t resort to NIMBY – “not in my backyard.” But you would have to be greedy or foolish to welcome this activity in a high density “bedroom community” with meager 450-feet setbacks.”

Mike Powers was voted vice president of the Thornridge Homeowners’ Association in 2015 after speaking out for more public control of drilling. He is also a member of “Don’t Drill the Hills.” With his shock of white hair and his physical gravitas, he addressed the Rochester Hills City Council meeting on March 17, 2014, warning against apathy.

“So in many ways, I am grateful for why we are here.  Because thanks to apathy, money, a lack of decision-making transparency here, Jordan Oil, and this whole issue of drilling for oil and gas in high density residential areas, I sense a strong and growing determination building to support tipping the balance of power back to the people,” said Powers.

“My hope is that tonight and every other Monday night the people will come forward to assert their voices and their rights to make sure that they tip it back. Getting Jordan Oil out of our communities, Rochester Hills and our back yards will be that first step toward shedding apathy.”

Even though Barrett, Powers and many others like them continued to attend local homeowners’ association meetings, Rochester Hills City Council meetings, and even scheduled a special meeting with the mayor in 2014, nothing changed.

That’s when “Don’t Drill the Hills,” with the backing of local community members’ donations and fundraisers at the local “Max and Erma’s” restaurant, decided to file a lawsuit. The lawsuit said the lease should be taken to a vote, especially since it included parklands protected by city charters. When that lawsuit was denied, they filed an appeal.

The Middle Continued: The Debate
To understand more about why there’s a debate over drilling in Rochester Hills, it’s important to understand the geography of the area and the effects drilling might have on it.

If you look at the map from the Rochester Hills City Council’s Park and Recreation Master Plan for 2011-2015, you’ll see Nowicki Park, indicated by the number 4, and Tienken Road Park, indicated by the number 9.

Number 4 and number 9 represent Nowicki Park and Tienken Road Park respectively. Courtesy of the City of Rochester Hills from the City of Rochester Hills Park and Recreation Master Plan for 2011-2015.
Number 4 and number 9 represent Nowicki Park and Tienken Road Park respectively. Courtesy of the City of Rochester Hills from the City of Rochester Hills Park and Recreation Master Plan for 2011-2015.

As you can see from the map, Tienken Road Park is located near the two schools, Adams High School and Van Hoosen Middle School indicated by the blue square and circled letters “O” and “R.” The schools’ total enrollment in 2014-2015 was 2417 students. Nowicki Park is located near a golf course. But it’s much more than that.

Again on a spring night, people from neighboring houses take their dogs for walks in the park’s tall grass that used to be farmland. In the 1990s, a farmer had a fruit and vegetable truck that he parked at the front of the park. He’d pull up and sell corn and peaches-there’s still a historic white farm house on the property where a family lives.

By zooming in using the park-specific maps from the City of Rochester Hills Park and Recreation Master Plan for 2011-2015, you can get a better sense of how central these parks are to the community, both in location and in function.

A zoomed in map of Tienken Road Park one of the locations covered in the lease. Courtesy of the City of Rochester Hills from the City of Rochester Hills Park and Recreation Master Plan for 2011-2015.
A zoomed in map of Tienken Road Park one of the locations covered in the lease. Courtesy of the City of Rochester Hills from the City of Rochester Hills Park and Recreation Master Plan for 2011-2015.

On the zoomed in map of the Tienken Park Road, you can see the parking lot of the high school, the path, and the houses in the subdivisions where hundreds of families live.

A zoomed in map of Nowicki Park one of the locations covered in the lease. Courtesy of the City of Rochester Hills from the City of Rochester Hills Park and Recreation Master Plan for 2011-2015.
A zoomed in map of Nowicki Park one of the locations covered in the lease. Courtesy of the City of Rochester Hills from the City of Rochester Hills Park and Recreation Master Plan for 2011-2015.

Zoom in on the map of Nowicki Park and you can also see whole neighborhoods of houses represented by white, gray, blue and brown boxes.

As Barrett said in his speech, is 450 feet really far enough away from highly developed areas on charter-protected parklands?

Just this month, the U.S. Geological Survey released maps suggesting a connection between increased occurrence of earthquakes and natural gas and oil production linked to storage of wastewater in deep wells, a byproduct of drilling.

The storage in deep wells of wastewater from horizontal drilling is linked to a higher risk of earthquakes at fault lines, according to a recent USGS report.

Art McGarr, of the Earthquake Hazards Program for the U.S. Geological Survey, said that several states show an increased occurrence of human-made earthquakes, though Michigan is not one of them.

“There are about six or seven states that account for this new earthquake activity that hadn’t been there before. Oklahoma is at the top of the lists also Texas, Arkansas, New Mexico, Colorado, and Ohio to a lesser extent. Those are the main areas where we’ve been finding a big increase in earthquakes that is not consistent with natural processes,” said McGarr.

He said most of these earthquakes are caused by wastewater, a byproduct of drilling.

“Along with the oil or gas, some of the fluid produced is flow back. What is produced at the surface is a mixture of saltwater and oil and/or gas. The most common way to deal with wastewater, which is a brine which is very expensive to purify to drinking water standards, is to put it deep underground,” said McGarr.

When wastewater is stored underground, especially near a fault line, earthquakes may occur, he said.

The U.S. Geological Survey map below shows increased earthquake activity in red and orange.

The U.S. Geological Survey map that highlights areas where earthquakes are more prevalent due to natural gas and oil drilling. Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.
The U.S. Geological Survey map that highlights areas where earthquakes are more prevalent due to natural gas and oil drilling. Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.

In 1990, West Bay Exploration, one of the companies that could be drilling for natural gas and oil in Rochester Hills, took out a lawsuit against three insurance companies who refused to pay cleanup costs after chemicals leaked from a punctured below ground wastewater barrel at one of their production units.

The case involved “West Bay Exploration Company, a Michigan Corporation, plaintiff-appellant, v. Aig Specialty Agencies of Texas, Inc., a Texas Corporation, formerly Known As Aig Oil Rig of Texas, Inc., Etal., Defendants, international Surplus Lines Insurance Company, an Illinois corporation; Great Southern Fire Insurance Company, Anarizona Corporation; Zurich American Insurance Company Of Illinois, an Illinois Corporation, Defendants-appellees, 915 F.2d 1030 (6th Cir. 1990).”

In the brief from the 1990 case, chemicals were produced by a process used to store wastewater. “The water is discharged into a drip barrel rather than into the air because of the danger that it will carry trace amounts of the potentially carcinogenic aromatic hydrocarbons benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, and xylene (BTEX). These toxins may appear naturally in water vapor from the wells.”

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources found that this wastewater had levels of benzene that had exceeded normal levels by “a factor of 3,500, making the aquifer that was tested “totally unsafe for human consumption” or even bathing.”

When the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality reviewed the lease and presented their findings (available on the Rochester Hills City website in PowerPoint form) to the Rochester Hills City Planning Commission on January 13, 2015, their “areas of concern” covered most of the map of Rochester Hills.

Map showing “areas of concern” for natural gas and oil production in Rochester Hills created by the MIS Department of the City of Rochester Hills. Map courtesy of the City of Rochester Hills.
Map showing “areas of concern” for natural gas and oil production in Rochester Hills created by the MIS Department of the City of Rochester Hills. Map courtesy of the City of Rochester Hills.

In another map, the MDEQ’s restricted areas again covered most of the map based on regulations regarding drilling near densely populated areas, rivers, and roads.

Map showing “areas where drilling is prohibited” in Rochester Hills created by the MIS department of the City of Rochester Hills. Courtesy of the City of Rochester Hills.
Map showing “areas where drilling is prohibited” in Rochester Hills created by the MIS department of the City of Rochester Hills. Courtesy of the City of Rochester Hills.

The white spaces on the map were the sites leftover for drilling.

The Indeterminate End: The Lawsuit
Now, the people of Rochester Hills wait. As the second lawsuit has been decided, they wait to see if “Don’t Drill the Hills” will appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court as a last resort. They wait to see if their mayor and city council will change the lease. They wait to see if Jordan Bay trucks start to roll in.

Before the Michigan Court of Appeals decision, Megan Barnes a lawyer and “Don’t Drill the Hills” member warned against losing the lawsuit.

“We would have no say in our use of public lands. We’re trying to enforce the most is a charter amendment put in place in 2011 to specifically protect the park for development.” Megan Barnes of Don’t Drill the Hills.

“We would have no say in our use of public lands. We’re trying to enforce the charter amendment put in place in 2011 to specifically protect the park for development. The charter expressly forbid non-recreation or non-conservation unless a vote passed overwhelmingly by 80% of voters,” said Barnes.

In the meantime, Gibson said, “the geology in the region doesn’t support future exploration,” but they won’t rule it out entirely. Jordan Development representative Ben Brower said, “I don’t know that we have done much in there in the last year or so. We may not be doing additional development.”

“It wasn’t so much about the development but the idea that someone can cause leases to be terminated for no reason. This can’t happen that citizens […] they just can’t come in and say its not allowed,” Brower said.

And although Rochester Hills isn’t the only city in densely populated Oakland County that has been approached about natural gas and oil production, as seen in the map below, people understandably still have concerns: concerns for their health and safety if drilling goes ahead.

Map showing “natural gas and oil activity” in Oakland County, where Rochester Hills is located. Courtesy of the City of Rochester Hills.
Map showing “natural gas and oil activity” in Oakland County, where Rochester Hills is located. Courtesy of the City of Rochester Hills.

Along with what the future will look like…

Images of a natural gas and oil production unit courtesy of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
Images of a natural gas and oil production unit courtesy of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

In the meantime, the waiting game continues on all sides.