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Directional Drilling for Oil and Gas in Michigan


Harrison, William, B. III

Department of Geosciences, Western Michigan University


     Directional drilling is a technology employed by drilling companies to reach subsurface locations from surface locations which are not directly (vertically) above the target area.  Several types of directionally drilled wells can exist.  Simple deviated holes begin at a surface location and are drilled at some fixed angle to terminate at a bottom hole location geographically offset from the surface location.  Complex deviated holes may change angle and/or direction several times before reaching the final bottom hole location.  Horizontal wells are a special kind of directional hole that achieves a nearly 90 degree angle of drilling in the bottom portion of the well.

     Directional drilling began in Michigan in 1972. Since then more than 3,800 wells have been directionally drilled as simple or complex deviated holes.  Additionally, more than 400 horizontal wells have been drilled since the early 1980’s.  This represents about 8 percent of the nearly 49,000 total oil and gas wells drilled in Michigan since 1925.

     Most people did not know that directional drilling even occurred in Michigan until Governor John Engler requested a Michigan Environmental Science Review Board Panel convene to evaluate the risk of directional drilling under the Great Lakes.  The Panel’s recommendations issued in late 1997 stated that there was little to no risk of contamination to Great lakes bottom or waters through releases directly above the bottom hole portion of directionally drilled wells. There is, however a small risk of contamination at the well head (on land).  The panel also suggested that the Michigan DNR rules that regulated Great Lakes bottomland leasing be revised to afford additional environmental protection.

     After the MESB’s recommendations were made Governor Engler decided to lift existing drilling bans on directional drilling under the Great Lakes from onshore locations.  The Michigan DNR was instructed to prepare new leasing regulations in accordance with the MESB recommendations. A final draft of the DNR Real Estate Division’s leasing regulations were published in spring of 2001 after extensive consultation with environmental and industry representatives.  After the announcement of the intention to renew leasing of Great Lakes bottomlands belonging to the State of Michigan, environmental activist groups began a major media and legislative campaign to reverse the decision.

     After many hearings before State congressional committees and the Michigan Natural Resources Commission. The Michigan House initiated a bill to ban directional drilling beneath the Great Lakes. On April 5, 2002 that bill became law and is now known as Public Act 148.  Existing producing wells and valid oil and gas leases on Great Lakes bottomland are exempted from this ban. This legislation has no effect on vertical wells near the lakeshore or directional wells that do not bottom beneath Great Lakes waters.