Too Close for Comfort: Citizens for Oil-Free Backyards

By Rachel Urist
Photography by Susan Ayer

Three years ago, Laura Robinson moved to Scio Township with her husband and two children. For five years before the move, they lived on Berkshire Road, within walking distance of central campus in Ann Arbor. But they wanted a more rural setting. They chose the township for its tranquility, a quality that attracts many township residents. Two years after their move, West Bay Exploration came looking for oil.

Robinson learned about the company’s presence — and about the dangers of the oil industry’s incursions — from her neighbors, who were suddenly talking about leasing agents (“landmen”) who were going door to door inviting property owners to lease their mineral rights. Many signers were unaware of the health and environmental damages that might ensue, along with collateral damage prospects, including unsightly oil rigs and busy, noisy, truck traffic. Many residents felt pressured or seduced into signing the leases peddled by these salesmen.

Seated: Ian Moyer, Treasurer; Yi-Li Wu Standing: Laura Robinson, President; Gus Teschke, Vice-President; Judith Hoffman, Secretary; Russ Taichmann (not pictured: Rob French, Donna Vigilant, and Kathleen Knol)

Seated: Ian Moyer, Treasurer; Yi-Li Wu
Standing: Laura Robinson, President; Gus Teschke, Vice-President; Judith Hoffman, Secretary; Russ Taichmann (not pictured: Rob French, Donna Vigilant, and Kathleen Knol)

In April 2014, Robinson attended a meeting that featured talks by oil company executives. She listened in amazement, disturbed by their confidence. They seemed certain that residents would be happy to have them in the township once they understood the benefits, both personal and communal. For Robinson, it was clear that things were moving in the wrong direction. The community, she said, has a nature ethos; it is “preservation minded.” Residents bike, hike, and enjoy the area’s serenity. She sensed that the West Bay people figured folks “might squawk,” as she put it, but then they’d lie down and the oil company would move in. “The oil industry has incredible power,” said Robinson. For her, creating a platform to advocate for community rights to regulate oil and gas development, especially as it affects neighborhoods, water resources, and preserved open-space, was “a moral imperative.”

Within weeks, Robinson had an entourage of concerned citizens. Barely a month after that April meeting, she founded “Citizens for Oil-Free Backyards,” or COFBY. “I grabbed a few people around me, and off we went,” she said. “It was quite a journey.” The group was bound together by a feeling of profound injustice and they were determined not to be victims of the greedy oil industry. Their immediate goal was to keep West Bay from drilling the very first well in Scio Township. To have West Bay invade the peaceful idyll of township residents seemed outrageously unfair.

Their immediate goal was to keep West Bay from drilling the very first well in Scio Township. To have West Bay invade the peaceful idyll of township residents seemed outrageously unfair.

Robinson and her neighbors soon learned that state law gave townships little if any control over oil companies; they were powerless to keep oil wells away from homes. West Bay might just go in and do what they wanted because the township, like any township, had no say whatsoever about it. The only things that townships could regulate were the ancillary aspects of the oil well.

Robinson consulted with elected officials, legal professionals, and environmental experts, and got a crash course in government, politics, the oil industry, community organizing, and diplomacy. Looking back, she says “it was very hard.” Fortunately, she had the support of her husband, who “stepped in and did everything at home,” she said. Still, she worried about her kids. She was reassured when she saw how avidly they participated in a community picket of the well site. They also wrote encouraging notes. One said: “Great job, mom!” Her maternal concerns were further tempered by her conviction that working for this cause and protecting her family’s environment was a good lesson for her children. She wanted them to understand that “sometimes there are bigger things in the world that people need to take care of.” She added: “It’s important for kids to have role models. They need to learn to stand up for themselves, to do what’s right, to take on injustices.” Her kids were already careful recyclers and aware of environmental concerns. She recalled her kids’ response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf in 2010. On their own initiative, they set up a lemonade stand on the sidewalk and raised money to help the animals harmed by the spill. “They feel knowledgeable,” Robinson said. “That is hopeful.”

Even before having a title, Robinson took COFBY’s leadership role. Once the organization received nonprofit status, the board elected her president. The group relied on social media, press releases, and mass emails to report its findings and activities and to announce upcoming meetings. They held potlucks and town hall meetings. They gathered for rallies and met with local, county, and state officials. Even though Robinson was still working part-time, she threw herself, full-throttle, into the effort. COFBY began fundraising. They hired an environmental consultant, Christopher Grobbel, and an attorney, Arthur Siegal, who spoke compellingly to a packed town hall last spring. With their guidance and Robinson’s leadership, the group devised a plan. First they launched an all-out organizational effort to teach citizens of Scio Township about the liabilities of oil drilling near their homes. Ann Arborites should note that oil drilling in the upstream township threatens city dwellers, too. Eighty-five percent of the city’s water supply comes from the Huron River, whose waters could be compromised, as could the soil and water tables of surrounding areas. COFBY’s frequent press releases were clear and informative, and each contained the organization’s mission statement. That statement, always presented in bullet points, evolved as the group grew in knowledge and experience. The mission statement currently reads:

·         To educate and inform state residents, local units of government, and state legislators about oil and gas exploration and development;

 

·         To educate citizens about state policy, and to inform state policy in the direction of giving all local communities the right to manage oil and gas exploration and development in ways consistent with local goals — whether those be for residential, open-space preservation, outdoor recreation and sport, or other development — and with maintaining the integrity of drinking and surface water;

 

·         To ensure that the oil and gas industry and the state agency that regulates it protect state residents and their communities as well as the rights of local units of government. 

While we do not advocate for specific future alternatives, we believe that the finite supply of fossil fuels will eventually lead toward sustainable energy policies. Meanwhile, we seek practical, intelligent solutions that will benefit local units of government and state residents at the current time.

Saline and Lodi already had wells. New drilling had been approved, and drilling was now on the horizon for Scio Township. In June 2014, COFBY filed a motion for a temporary restraining order against West Bay Exploration. The motion was dismissed by Washtenaw County Circuit Court Judge David Swartz and sent to Lansing. Robinson met with town council representatives, with State Representatives Gretchen Driskell (D-Saline) and Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor), and with State Senator Rebekah Warren. Initially, the Scio Township Board of Trustees thought there was nothing they could do. Robinson and her COFBY colleagues, who did extensive research, provided information and persuaded them otherwise. Robinson summarized COFBY’s approach as follows:

We’d learned enough to know that the township could implement ordinances about noise, truck traffic, and the infrastructure, if not the drilling. We reached out to the township board members on a regular basis. We educated them. We were forceful. We gathered the community to come to meetings and put pressure on them. We did not let up on that pressure for one minute.

In August, the Scio Township board passed a moratorium on oil and gas activity. Nevertheless, on August 19, West Bay began drilling at the corner of West Delhi and Miller Roads. On September 3, the company announced that the 5,000-foot exploratory well was dry and would be plugged.

Robinson was relieved but guarded in her optimism. Though the Scio Township well was dry and activity wrapped, many residents worry that the oil companies may return. Asked about the risk, Robinson said:

A report of a dry well doesn’t mean there’s not oil right down the street. An exploratory well is just that, and typically they just continue exploring nearby. The difference in this case is that there was state-level attention being paid to this well and additional exploration would have caused more uproar. The leases I’ve seen are for five years and can be renewed. They could come back any time within those five years. They may be waiting to see what happens. They could decide this was too much and they won’t come back. They said they encountered more citizen resistance than they expected. Or it could be years, months. The threat is there.

She added: “I think it’s really crucial that people keep their guard up, that we keep working on this and remain vigilant. We don’t want the pressure we’ve applied to go away and then for them or another company to come back and try again.”

In August, West Bay began drilling a well in a residential neighborhood in Shelby Township, in Macomb County. Shelby residents turned to Robinson for help. COFBY visited the well, notified the press and elected officials, and issued a press release that included the following:

Citizens for Oil-Free Backyards visited the Shelby well during daylight and nighttime hours with upset residents of the local community. We experienced extremely bright lights; loud noise comparable to a freeway, along with squealing sounds, despite a muffler reportedly being installed, as it would be in Scio; and vibration.

The press release included Robinson’s impassioned response:

This invasion of residential areas by oil and gas companies is exactly what the residents of Michigan should not have to tolerate. This well has ruined a community, and the same type of wells will ruin Scio Township, where many homes are just as close as those in Shelby and where there are numerous natural areas. An exploratory well is just the beginning of the process — when oil is found, it is followed by development such as additional wells, tank batteries, compressor stations, central processing facilities, pipelines, and constant truck traffic. It’s unacceptable that the rights of citizens to enjoy their lives in their established neighborhoods and to maintain their property values are made secondary, or even less, to the interests of oil and gas companies that suddenly come along and purchase the rights to minerals under the ground. It’s unacceptable that the health, safety, and well-being of Michigan residents and the well-being of the environment are sacrificed. And it’s unacceptable that township communities suffer the disastrous consequences of having their natural resources exploited and their natural areas destroyed so that a private company can try to extract a small amount of oil. This is not an investment in communities but a destruction of them.

When Robinson and her COFBY colleagues began this campaign, they explored the history of the oil companies. She admits that during the spring and summer of 2014, taking on this powerful industry was daunting — even though she felt very confident in herself, her organization, and her mission. She quotes Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun, who said: “Bravery is not fearlessness; it’s feeling fear and taking action anyway.” Robinson and her colleagues took measures to protect their privacy.

Among the Scio Township residents who threw their support to COFBY is Josh Pokempner, a creative entrepreneur, philanthropist, and self-described “recovering architect.” He had this to say about her:

Laura Robinson is an amazing person — smart and fearless. She put herself at great risk taking on a big oil company. It’s a big adversary; they can be a nuisance. With all their money, they can scare you away. They’d scare me away. I don’t see anybody as bold as that in my world. Most of the people I know, including risk-takers, would think twice before taking on such a powerful company. They’d look at what the personal reward is and weigh the risk against the reward. For her, the personal reward is the community reward. She’s doing it for all of us. She’s skillful, organized, and powerful. It’s inspiring.

Rep. Jeff Irwin is also impressed. He said:

She’s a strong advocate. Her work ballooned to the point where we’re now talking about what can be done statewide to change the laws to back before 2011, when Gov. Snyder changed the rules and took away local control. Restoring that control is the real challenge. I give her total credit for getting this issue on the radar at the state level. The hardest part of democracy is the community organizing that Laura’s doing: getting out there, the hard slog of talking to neighbors, organizing community events, forums. During his campaign, Gov. Snyder was asked whether he thought local government should have the authority to regulate oil and gas. Basically, he said, ‘Gosh, yeah, that’s something we need to work on.’ His answer indicated that (1) he may not have understood the law he signed, despite his law degree, and (2) Laura was getting to the governor’s ear. This attests to the work she was doing, getting citizens up to speed. The governor was backpedaling on policies he had signed on!

Curious about how she became this fearless leader, I asked Robinson about her background. I was fully aware that she does not share much with outsiders. It occurred to me that she might preface her words with: “This is off the record.” But she was willing to share the following. She was born and raised in north-central North Carolina, in the town of Henderson, in Vance County. She has a twin brother. She spoke of her “typical, idealized, 70’s Southern childhood — playing outside with friends, watching TV sitcoms after school, spending the summers at the local pool.” As a child, she loved being in a small town, where everyone seemed to know everyone else. It felt friendly. But her parents divorced when she was nine, which forced a move from the privileged side of town to the other side. The experience, she said, taught her “about injustice, struggle, generosity, and strength.”

She spent her last two years of high school at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham, the country’s first public residential high school for gifted students. In her day, the student body numbered 200. Despite the size, it had the highest number of National Merit Scholars in the country. She was one. “It’s a very unique place; it was creative and intellectually stimulating. I wouldn’t be who I am today without having gone there.” Being public, the school was free to the limited number of students who were accepted. To help defer costs, the school gave students work assignments. They worked either on the grounds crew or in the cafeteria. When CNN did a documentary on the school, the camera caught Robinson mopping the cafeteria floor.

She then worked her way through Duke University, where she earned her B.A. in English. After graduating, she went to Washington, DC, and worked as an editor at Congressional Quarterly Books. She was enjoying the relatively privileged life of a young, working professional. But her route to work each day involved passing homeless people. She felt a sore “disconnect” between her life and theirs. She wanted to do something that mattered on a deeper level, to make a difference to people one-on-one.

She decided to explore psychology, sensing a connection between her interest in the narratives and motivations of fictional characters and the real-world problems of flesh-and-blood people. Beyond that, she had “no clue” as to what psychology was about. She had never taken a psychology class. She returned to North Carolina, walked into the Psych Department at UNC-Chapel Hill, and looked for students and professors who might help. She found them, they were welcoming, and she ended up working as a research assistant at UNC and at Duke. While also freelancing as a book editor for several university and other presses, on topics ranging from literary theory to social history to analysis of fairy tales to sailing memoirs, she took psychology classes in order to be able to apply to graduate school. Today she holds a doctoral degree (a Psy.D.) in clinical psychology from the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology at Rutgers University. Her dissertation explored two parallel dyads: mother as therapist and therapist as mother. She interviewed psychoanalytic therapists who were also mothers and examined analytic ideas on how the pairings overlap.

Asked whether her professional training helped her in this recent undertaking, Robinson responded with an emphatic, threefold “yes.”

Clinical training helped her to channel the chaos of the situation and fear and anger of the community into productive channels and to communicate effectively. The professional training also helped to keep those feelings under control. One could easily have felt completely overwhelmed.

It also helped to know how to articulate thoughts and feelings in ways that could be heard by people with different perspectives and personalities. For Robinson, this was both helpful and gratifying.

On a personal note, she added:

As parents, we all think about our kids’ future. There are so many destructive forces out there. You can feel powerless. I’d been thinking about ‘what can I do’ as a parent, as a psychologist. If you have a chance to make a difference, it feels you’re doing something positive. We live with such denial — to protect ourselves from the overload of bad news: viruses, violence, terrorism at home and abroad — big forces at play. You want to provide hope.

Robinson has become a symbol of what determined individuals can do. She hopes that COFBY’s accomplishments will inspire others to organize and adopt activist approaches to oppose oil exploration near homes, waterways, and preserved spaces in their communities. “We really have reached a tipping point,” she said. “It’s a bipartisan issue. People are saying we have had enough of oil and gas coming into our neighborhoods and in sensitive natural areas, near wetlands, streams, coming close to people's front doors. It's just too much.”

To those who know her, Robinson’s passionate response to dispassionate corporate power comes as no surprise. That phrase, “comes as no surprise,” was articulated by each of the friends contacted for this story. Kate Thomas-Palmer admires her friend for taking this on. She noted that Robinson has long been passionate about environmental and social justice issues, so it came as no surprise to see Robinson at the helm last summer. Retired Lieutenant Colonel Michael P. Murphy, U.S. Army, said it was no surprise to see her spearhead this effort to protect her community. “Laura has always been actively civic minded. She pairs a sharp intellect with a passion to serve, resulting in a force of will that pushes her to act, and not just observe.” When Laura phoned him to share her frustrations and the challenges of the undertaking, she knew that he, too, had encountered “the machine,” as he put it. “We had some commonality of experience.”

She knew that next to the Leviathan of the alliance of Big Oil and government, she was a true underdog, yet her firm conviction that she was on the right side of morality and history compelled her to act. She was forced to confront those driven by money and votes, and not by what is best for family and community.

Murphy understood her shellshock at being immersed in such an intense campaign. For Robinson, the intensity was unexpected and “profound.” Yet she knew she had to “Drive On,” as Murphy put it, in army vernacular. He said:

I deeply respect Laura's fortitude and recognize it as something I learned to value as a combat veteran. When faced with what seems to be an insurmountable obstacle, one must become an unstoppable force. That is how I see Laura.

Robinson emphasized that the oil industry gets its toehold by coming in with landmen who don’t have to announce that they’re there. They go to people’s homes, get people to sign over mineral rights, and owners often sign without fully understanding the contract’s import. COFBY has heard that people feel coerced, pressured, and that they’re told that if everyone’s signing, they should too. COFBY has tried to counteract that pressure by going door to door to explain who and what the landmen are. Word is that these agents’ offers can be appealing because they talk about prospective profits from oil; they push the strike-it-rich approach; they offer bonuses for signing. It’s tough trying to dissuade owners from leasing their mineral rights when they are feeling trapped or, alternatively, when they want to try to earn income. Robinson is well aware that sometimes people need the money. She asks: “How can COFBY tell people that it’s not okay for them to make money from their property?” But citizens have learned to wonder whether they really do stand to make any money. Robinson underscored the following:

1)      It’s rare to strike it rich, and there are many reports of people not getting fairly compensated. A case was recently settled in the state against Chesapeake Energy for this very reason.

2)      People with the short-term goal of financial gain are giving up something important because of the long-term issues that can occur, not to mention the change they might be making to the ethos of their communities.

3)      Property values go down when there are oil and gas wells, and thus industrialization, all around you.

4)      Mortgage issues can arise for those who lease.

5)      Insurance issues can also arise.

6)      If contamination issues occur, it could be almost impossible to sell the property. Even without contamination, trying to sell a home when the mineral rights are leased might not be palatable to buyers. Leases are typically renewable at the discretion of the oil company, not the property owner.

7)      The oil companies’ argument that oil drilling benefits communities is a divisive argument. It pits neighbor against neighbor when often those neighbors were getting along fine until the oil company came along. That’s not a benefit to communities, nor does it benefit the communities when oil companies take the mineral resources from a community, turn the area into an oil field, and then leave. The oil industry has seen to its own interests, not to the interests of the citizens. Just because you have the right to do something doesn’t mean it benefits your community. As a society and as a culture, people have evolved to work together in a way that helps everyone do better. Township residents don’t want to see their communities divided between those who sign (the “enemies”) and those who do not sign.

8)      There is a gross discrepancy between laws for citizens and laws for the oil and gas industry. Laws against noise violations for late-night parties, for instance, are enforced. Yet industries are permitted to put oil wells in residential neighborhoods and disturb the inhabitants’ quality of life, health, safety, and welfare.

9)      COFBY has heard of many property owners who deeply regret signing. Some people sign without knowing both sides of the story, without consulting an attorney, and without understanding the long-term ramifications of their agreement. Once signed, a lease is legal and binding, and there is no real recourse to get out of it. It’s hard to imagine any other situation where people sign away something as valuable as the rights to part of their property to a person they’ve never met who goes door-to-door.

Robinson has explored the legal questions that arise when environmental issues disproportionally affect people who don’t have the individual or communal resources to fight against them. This area of law, called “environmental justice,” also addresses the questions that arise when the oil industry comes into their neighborhoods or near their drinking water, and residents find themselves with no laws to protect them. In the case of people who want to lease their mineral rights because they want to make money and see it as their right to do so, Robinson sees a power imbalance in which the promise of financial gain for one is given precedence over the rights of others who own property nearby.

Robinson and her colleagues were surprised to learn that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) has not provided the safeguards necessary to protect people and the environment. It turns out that the mission of the MDEQ's Office of Oil, Gas, and Minerals, according to the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act (Part 615), is to facilitate extraction of oil and gas. This discovery was a shock. The agency’s name suggests a different mission. As things stand, the MDEQ rarely withholds approval for oil company permits. (In 2014, 192 permit applications were received and 189 were approved.) In Scio Township, despite massive protests and unprecedented public outcries — with the support of state and local politicians, and despite the permit’s two-month delay — the permit was still approved. Citizens must go to court and bear the costs in order to prevent drilling in their neighborhoods. COFBY also discovered that because of MDEQ’s relatively few inspectors, there are situations around the state in which it takes days for the agency to respond to complaints.

The failures of the MDEQ to clean up oil and gas contamination are documented in a 2001 Lake Michigan Federation report, compiled with the help of the Michigan Environmental Council. Listed among the more egregious examples of the agency’s lax oversight are these:

·         Some oil and gas pollution sites have been contaminated for as long as 35 years and have not yet been cleaned up.

·         Not one contaminated groundwater site of those reviewed has been restored to health despite widely documented instances of oil and gas leaks contaminating some of the state’s precious groundwater resources.

The report notes that many of the sites reviewed still show chlorides or petroleum hydrocarbons contaminating private drinking water supplies. The pollution also degrades fish and wildlife habitats. The state knew about most of these polluted sites for an average of 13 years before taking action. Of the 36 sites reviewed, only two sites with relatively minor contamination have had complete cleanups and require no further action. Twenty-one sites still require further studies or actions, including plugging leaking wells.

“We really have reached a tipping point. People are saying we have had enough of oil and gas coming into our neighborhoods…”
— Laura Robinson

When people move into an area whose zoning category is “rural-residential,” they expect the area to remain protected. Though zoning categories are defined differently from one county to the next, the “rural-residential” designation is meant to preserve and retain the rural landscape and character of the region and to protect fragile environments. Yet West Bay Exploration went into a rural-residential area in Scio, as state law allowed. The well dug by the company last August, in Shelby Township, was in a nature preserve between densely populated residential subdivisions (at 25 Mile and Dequindre). In Scio, West Bay drilled near the Huron River. Oil wells can loom as close as 300 feet from private homes. According to Crain’s Detroit Business, West Bay has drilled for oil in approximately 50 sites in Southeast Michigan, since 1986. According to the 1997 Annual Report for the State of the Great Lakes, over 50,000 wells have been drilled in Michigan since 1925. When oil companies begin prospecting, area residents are usually unpleasantly surprised by the appearance of drills and other industrial machinery, and discomfited, if not appalled, by the health and environmental risks as well as the noise and other quality of life issues.

While all this is discouraging, it is heartening, Robinson said, to see the growing awareness among citizenry of the dangers and liabilities of oil drilling and of the problematic effect of state law on townships faced with oil exploration. Still, she is concerned about communities that have neither the academic and financial resources of her own township, nor the critical mass to fight back. This worry has prompted COFBY to go to other townships to help citizens organize.

I asked one of Robinson’s college friends about her. “She’s a spitfire,” this friend said, before adding what had become the trademark elegy: “I’m not at all surprised at what she’s doing!” When I asked Robinson whether she had political experience or a history of community organizing before founding COFBY, she chuckled. “My experience was nil,” she said. Aside from attending a presidential inauguration, working in a political context at Congressional Quarterly, obsessively following politics, and, in her younger years, participating in various protests and marches, her political activism had been through the ballot box, discussions with friends about different issues, and support of various causes.

The only activist leadership role she recalled taking was two years ago, when she successfully mobilized her community to preserve the rural quality of their area by keeping certain dirt roads from being paved. But, she said, compared to launching COFBY, that dirt road venture was “small-scale.” It did, however, turn out to be helpful, because the experience made her a familiar face in Scio Township. It brought her name and face to the attention of the township board and to many area residents. Still, she said, “I certainly had no idea life was going to bring me anything remotely like what it brought last summer!

She is reflective about the summer’s events. “It was hard on the kids. They missed me,” she said. “I had a full life, and then I took this on.” Does she have regrets? No. “I want my kids to grow up in a world where adults — parents — don’t just hand off a damaged world to them, but think about the world they’re handing over.” Robinson is glad that her kids learn in school about energy use as well as environmental concerns, critical elements of this oil issue. She hears her kids’ concerns in their questions to her, including: “What if there aren’t any trees left when I’m your age?” Robinson is convinced that this experience is teaching her children about courage, strength, and determination. They are also accustomed to their mom’s busy schedule. She has continued to work as a psychologist and as the volunteer head of COFBY, and last December went to Lansing to testify about oil drilling before the lame-duck state Senate Committee on Natural Resources, Environment, and Great Lakes. The road is long, the work defined. She will not give up.


For more information about COFBY, visit Oilfreebackyards.org. Click on the publications link to read Laura Robinson’s position paper intended to guide future legislative policy on local zoning control of oil and gas exploration and development.


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Posted on April 30, 2015 and filed under Profiles.