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Executives in Michigan’s oil and gas industry hope a new geological mapping project could help the sector by informing smart regulations at the state level. Executives in Michigan’s oil and gas industry hope a new geological mapping project could help the sector by informing smart regulations at the state level. Photo Courtesy of the Michigan Oil and Gas Association

Geological mapping could spur economic development, protect water quality

BY Sunday, October 30, 2016 04:48pm

KALAMAZOO — Researchers at the Michigan Geological Survey hope a state grant will better position government, businesses and other stakeholders to understand the natural resources that lie under the ground. 

Proponents of the grant say additional mapping of Michigan’s geological deposits could help spur commercial development, attract new businesses and protect the state’s fresh water. 

While the state’s Upper Peninsula is known for its copper reserves, knowledge about Michigan’s other natural resources and its quantities is largely lacking, especially compared to neighboring states, said John Yellich, director of the Michigan Geological Survey, which is based at Western Michigan University

The available information is either outdated or a patchwork of data owned by a variety of private companies participating in mining, drilling or other geological operations. To date, roughly 10 percent of the state has been mapped for resources including freshwater aquifers, natural gas, oil, subsurface storage and aggregate — which includes gravel, sand and other coarse materials used in construction.

“We have a minimal understanding of what’s below the top skin of soil,” Yellich said. “We just haven’t had much research done on many assessments over the last 30 years. We really don’t know where we’re going to get all the aggregates to fix our roads or for the expansions of cities.”

Yellich hopes to rectify the lack of research through the $500,000 grant the organization received last month from the state — only the second round of state funds it has received in the past 24 years. 

To start, the Michigan Geological Survey will map the subsurface in the city of Portage as a pilot site, Yellich said. The funding will also be used to create approximately four other test sites and help the organization develop a plan to convince Michigan lawmakers to provide annual funding for the geological mapping. Those funds would allow the state to qualify for matching federal dollars under the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Cooperative Geologic Coalition Mapping. 

Yellich plans to meet with representatives from various stakeholder groups including the Michigan Oil and Gas Association, Michigan Aggregates Association and Michigan Manufacturers Association to discuss their needs for geological mapping. Yellich also aims to strike a partnership with companies in those associations to share industry data that could expedite the mapping process. 

“This becomes a win-win where we get data we didn’t have to pay to get,” he said.  

AN ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT TOOL

Proponents of the geological mapping project say Michigan has fallen behind other neighboring states when it comes to understanding its resources and leveraging those materials to drive dollars to Michigan. 

For example, while Michigan has only 10 percent of its land mapped, states such as Ohio have used $3 million in federal matching funds to map approximately 80 percent of its priority areas. Likewise, Illinois and Indiana have invested approximately $4.7 million and $4 million in federal funding, respectively, to map geological areas. 

In Ohio, geological mapping contributed $575 million in annual economic development activity, according to a recent analysis by Michigan Geological Survey. 

“If any company comes to the state, they want to know if we have adequate water supply for the business they’re in,” Yellich said. “That’s where the resource assessments really need to be done.” 

For Jeff Cook, president of Greenville-based Southwestern Oil Co., the Michigan geological survey forms the “backbone” of the $13 billion oil and gas industry in the state. 

Southwestern Oil prospects land and purchases mineral rights before working with larger companies that do the actual drilling. 

“It means a lot to us as an industry,” said Cook, who also serves as the chairman of the Michigan Oil and Gas Association. “It ends up being a repository for information about the basin here (and) it’s developed by the state so that as companies come and go, that information stays.”

There’s also a regulation component to the survey, Cook said. 

“You need to understand the geology in order to effectively regulate this industry,” he said. “I tend to look at this from oil and gas, but understanding the basin that we live in is important not just for oil and gas, but for mining, water and aggregate — and to the regulators in each of those areas.” 

Yellich also notes the mapping would alert developers, municipalities and other stakeholders of potential geological hazards such as sinkholes. 

In addition to finding new water sources, businesses also see the value in the survey coming from the protection of Michigan’s aquifers.

“Our chief interest is water,” said Gary Dawson, director of environmental policy at Consumer Energy’s environmental and laboratory services department. “It’s amazing when you think about how much of our day depends on glacial or bedrock aquifers. It’s really key to the use of groundwater in the state.”  

Although Consumers Energy is not active in energy exploration, Dawson also notes that the antiquated data available on Michigan’s groundwater could result in accidental contamination. For example, commercial developers and energy exploration companies need to be cognizant of the state’s vast salt deposits before starting work on a project so they can prevent the mineral from mixing with fresh water, Dawson said.

“There’s a tremendous need on every level of development from residential, commercial and industry to have sufficient amounts and quality water,” he said. 

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