July 13, 2008

Judge Won’t Allow Drilling in Mason Tract

By Sheri McWhirter, The Record-Eagle, Traverse City, Mich.

Jul. 13--GRAYLING -- Opponents of a plan to drill for natural gas beneath a wilderness area known as the Mason Tract are celebrating a federal judge's decision to block mineral exploration there.

A judge determined federal officials failed to perform adequate environmental assessments prior to granting approval to drill.

"Absent of going back and doing the full environmental impact statement or appealing, it's dead," said Marvin Roberson of the Michigan Sierra Club, a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the federal government to halt the drilling.

Savoy Exploration of Traverse City for years wanted to slant drill a new well beneath the sprawling, scenic Mason Tract from a nearby spot on federal forestland. A pipeline and production facility would be installed if gas is found.

A lawsuit was filed in 2005 by Anglers of the Au Sable, the Mackinac Chapter of the Sierra Club and Tim Mason, grandson of the man who donated the Crawford County land to the state.

The suit questioned whether the U.S. government performed an adequate environmental assessment of the proposed drilling and if all mineral lease laws were followed.

The Mason Tract is a 4,700-acre wilderness area along the South Branch of the Au Sable River, 15 miles east of Grayling. It was donated as a public wilderness preserve in 1954 upon the death of auto executive and renowned outdoorsman George Mason.

"George Mason's gift 50 years ago is worth protecting for 50 years from now. Anything that could affect the river corridor should be highly scrutinized," said Rusty Gates, Anglers' president.

Savoy's drilling plan called for the removal of more than three acres of old growth forest and the widening of roads to the well site. Both federal and state officials signed off on the plan, although the suit targeted only the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service.

U.S. District Judge David Lawson of the Eastern District of Michigan ruled the Forest Service "acted arbitrarily and capriciously in finding that the leaseholder's proposed drilling project would have no significant environmental impact."

Federal officials should have better considered potential degradation of recreational aspects of the Mason Tract, the setting of precedent and the biological effect on the endangered Kirtland's warbler, Lawson said.

Also, Lawson said officials did not consider a "no action" alternative or relocation of the bottom hole of the well, more reasons their assessment fell short. He restrained and enjoined the federal government from relying on their "inadequate" environmental reviews, which prevents the well project from moving forward.

Savoy representatives could not be reached for comment.

The chief of the Forest Service will determine whether to request the U.S. Department of Justice appeal Lawson's decision, said Ken Arbogast, spokesman for the Huron-Manistee National Forests.


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