The Black River Conservation Association was formed in 1929 to preserve wildlife habitat.
For decades, the mission of the corporation remained committed to conservation and stewardship of hundreds of acres that the association’s membership could use for hunting and fishing, according to a review of Black River’s articles of incorporation.
The articles were amended in 1941 and the updated mission of the association was stated like this: “to acquire, hold, own, reforest and otherwise improve wild lands, and to conserve the game and wildlife thereon, and to use and enjoy said lands for outing purposes, ...; but no purpose of this corporation shall involve pecuniary gain or profit to its members or associates.”
Beginning in around 2009, the mission began to change.
The corporation purchased the mineral rights to its property from the state for over $100,000, state records show. The following year, the corporation entered an agreement with Energy West, and later Encana, to lease mineral rights for the purpose of natural gas hyrdaulic fracturing.
In December of that year, the Black River Conservation Association, a nonprofit corporation, became the Black River Association, a for-profit corporation.
The decades-old conservation association was now in the oil and gas business.
WELLS REQUIRE MORE WATER
A filing with the Kalkaska County Register of Deeds shows the potential scale of the Encana project on Black River’s property could include the construction of two well pads, each with up to six horizontal fracturing wells. Currently, Encana only has permits for two wells on one pad, to be located just south of M-72 around 13 miles from Kalkaska and 10 miles from Grayling in Bear Creek Township.
Horizontal fracturing, or fracking, taps natural gas through wells drilled vertically into the ground and then horizontally into shale formations, breaking up rock with a mixture of water, sand and chemicals to release the gas.
The practice has drawn opposition from environmentalist due to, among other reasons, the vast amount of water the process requires.
According to the permits for the two wells that have been approved at Black River, these wells could require more water to drill than other wells in the region. The wells could each require over 35 million gallons of fresh water to drill; previous wells, including wells down M-72 in Excelsior and Oliver townships, stirred anger among environmentalists because they required roughly 25 million gallons.
Bridget Ford, an Encana spokeswoman, said the water use listed on the permit is only an estimate and the amount of water necessary for the Black River project could be lower.
“The estimates are higher than some of our previous wells and the laterals for these wells are longer than any we’ve drilled to date in Michigan,” Ford said. “We may adjust these totals once we’ve drilled the well, but as of right now that is our estimate.”
COULD ADD UP TO A BILLION
Paul Brady, an anti-facking activist who happens to live in Bear Creek Township, said the Black River project could increase the amount of water used for Encana projects in Northern Michigan to over a billion gallons.
That’s if the project grows to include all 12 wells described in the “untization agreement” and the amount of water projected on the first two applications is used for all 12 wells, and includes water that would be required for new wells planned in nearby Oliver and Excelsior townships.
“If you look at the water that is proposed for the Oliver expansion, the Excelisor expansion, and the new C4-24 well pad, between all of those, along with the Black River, we’re looking at a billion gallons. And this thing is just getting started.”
That is troubling to Brady because Encana does not have to pay the state for water it takes from the ground and much of the activity is located in the upper waters of the Manistee River watershed.
“Still, we have no cumulative impact water studies whatsoever. None,” he said.
State officials from the Department of Environmental Quality maintain that water usage is monitored and water withdrawals for horizontal fracking will not impact area watersheds.
“We take water use and protection very seriously in all of our operations,” Ford said. She said horizontal fracking wells produce the equivalent of 18 to 20 vertical wells, so the surface impact is smaller and the return is greater than from traditional wells.
AREA’S CHARACTER AT STAKE
Brady said another concern about the Black River project is the effect it could have on the character of Bear Creek Township, a wooded, rural setting of mostly far-apart homes and hunting cabins set deep in the woods.
Brady said he fears the Black River project could make part of the township feel industrial.
“The industrialization leads to a huge decline in property value,” Brady said. “We’ve seen that in other places. It only makes sense. Nobody wants to live next to an industrial site. No one wants to see it; no one wants to smell it.”
The Northern Express visited the area.
There is a strip of homes on M-72 not far from the first proposed well pad. Many of those homes are apparently seasonal homes. Several permanent residents who spoke with the Express said they had not heard about the natural gas drilling plans.
They also said they were not concerned about a natural gas drilling project going in across M-72, which is a noisy, busy state highway.
DESIGNED FOR LOW IMPACT
Ford said this project, like other Encana projects, is designed to minimize impacts to wildlife and the environment.
“I would like to say that’s our goal in every area we operate, of course,” Ford said.
She said the Black River Association helped select the surface locations and Encana agreed to only work on the site at certain times during the year to minimize impact on wildlife.
According to the permit, work is supposed to begin this fall or winter and construction is expected to take around nine months.
The land has been a long-time destination as a private hunting and fishing land, so its owners must have paid attention to the environmental impact the project would have on the land.
John Shull, a Grand Rapids man who is the spokesman for the Black River association, said he had no comment.