Fracking fracas: Despite 50 years of use in Michigan, debate ignites over extraction process
Flammable tap water and water contamination are thoughts that come to mind when hydraulic fracturing — more commonly known as “fracking” — is mentioned, yet claims suggesting such negative consequences of the process have yet to be substantiated.
In reality, when it comes to fracking, there are facts and misinformation, risks and benefits — all of which lead to a very controversial issue that has taken the national stage among academics, environmentalists, the energy industry, and politicians.
Here in Oakland County, hydraulic fracturing became a hot topic due to fear of it happening along lakefront properties after state gas and mineral leases in west Oakland County were recently auctioned off.
It has even prompted Oakland County Commissioner Jim Nash (D-Farmington Hills) to hold a seminar on the topic featuring four different speakers from four different backgrounds to address the issue from 6 to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 12 at the Oakland County Board of Commissioners Auditorium.
Yet Hal Fitch, the chief of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Office of Oil, Gas, and Minerals said he doesn’t believe fracking is what’s in mind for the county’s lakefront areas.
But it still begs the questions: What is hydraulic fracturing? And is it safe?
Fracking is a well stimulation process used by gas producers to stimulate wells and recover natural gas from sources such as coal beds and shale gas formations, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Shale gas is the oldest source of natural gas in the United States, but until recently it has not been economically feasible to access these resources. Technology advancements have now made horizontal drilling and fracking useful ways of accessing these resources.
“With horizontal drilling, you get more natural gas than by going vertically,” said Dr. Steven Wright, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Michigan. “The advent of horizontal drilling made fracking a viable alternative to extract natural gas.”
Horizontal wellbores allow a greater exposure to a shale formation than a vertical wellbore, which is why they are ideal for shales that lacked sufficient permeability using vertical wells.
“One horizontal well will drain a large area, which is the whole point of exposing the formation to the wellbore,” Fitch said. “If you drill vertical holes, you have to drill a lot more — perhaps 10 to 20 vertical wells as opposed to one horizontal well — to get the same amount of gas.”
During fracking, millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals and sand are injected under high pressure into shale formations to create fissures, which release oil and natural gas in the rock and allow them to flow back into the well.
“One of the advantages is that a lot of natural gas and oil that could never be produced is now available because of hydraulic fracturing,” Fitch said. “Projections by the federal government show that a great majority of natural gas in the next 20 to 30 years will come from reservoirs that are hydraulically fractured.”
According to a report by the Energy Institute at the University of Texas, “Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in Shale Gas Development,” the current estimate of the country’s shale gas resources stands at 862 trillion cubic feet (tcf) — an estimate that doubled from 2010 to 2011. The percentage of that contribution to the total natural gas supply grew to 23 percent in 2010 and is expected to increase by 46 percent by 2035.
The extraction of natural gas from these shale formations has had a “fairly significant effect economically,” according to Wright.
“One thing that has happened is that the price of natural gas has not gone up. In fact, in some instances it has even dropped in the last few years,” he said. “That’s due almost entirely to fracking due to the availability to the natural gas resources. Economically, it has been a positive thing, and from the standpoint of green gases, using natural gases is better than burning coal.”
Yet, he said some people are concerned that the availability of more domestic natural gas is diverting attention away from the development of cleaner, renewable resources such as wind and solar energy.
Rita Chapman of the Michigan Sierra Club’s Clean Water Program agrees.
“We are investing so much money into this process and so much enthusiasm that it takes away the finances and enthusiasm to go after renewables,” she said. “Wind and solar energy resources, they never spill.”
Despite the apparent advantages and benefits of fracking, the process itself has remained controversial across the nation.
“People are raising concerns because a lot of the wells that were previously hydro-fracked were shallow and at low volume,” Fitch said. “Now using horizontal wells they are using deep shales with a higher volume of fracturing fluids.”
He added that this has made the practice “safer as the wells were isolated from aquifers by thousands of feet of rock.”
A study conducted by the EPA in 2004 concluded that there was little-to-no risk of fracturing fluid contaminating underground sources of drinking water.
In 2005, Congress exempted hydraulic fracturing from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
Since then, however, there have been complaints of water contamination following the use of fracking in several states, including Wyoming and Pennsylvania.
In Pennsylvania, a man was shown being able to light his tap water on fire — which some feared was due to fracking — in the Oscar-nominated documentary “Gasland.”
However, the first peer-reviewed study on hydraulic fracturing conducted by Duke University’s Robert Jackson concluded that, while those who live closer to a gas well are more likely to have their water contaminated with gas, such contamination doesn’t come directly from fracking. Sometimes methane can seep naturally from a shale formation into the groundwater supply — a natural occurrence which has been happening for millennia, according to Fitch.
And in Pennsylvania, where methane was found in the water, it was decided that the most likely culprit was gas well coverings that were leaking — a problem that is easily fixed, according to Jackson’s study — and not hydraulic fracturing itself.
Furthermore, the study showed that no fracturing fluid was found to have leaked or contaminated the adjacent water sources.
Nevertheless, public concern over the process has grown due to other reasons, including the chemical additives in the fracking fluid, the amount of water necessary for the process, flow back and wastewater disposal, air emissions, spill management, and blow outs.
“One of the major concerns in Michigan is that this new type of hydro-fracturing goes deeper and uses more water — around 5 million gallons per well — and contains known carcinogens and neurotoxins in the fracking fluid,” said Nic Clark, the Michigan campaigns director for Clean Water Action. “There’s no way to clean the water that’s used once it’s contaminated with all the toxins. The water cannot re-enter the hydrologic cycle.”
“There are two main issues,” U-M’s Wright added. “One is associated with making sure the fluids cannot come back up around the drill casing, and the bigger issue is how to handle the fluids that come back up after you develop the well. I don’t think that has been dealt with from a long-term perspective yet.”
The DNR’s Fitch said that fracking wastewater hasn’t been treated properly in other states, including storing the water in pits, disposing it improperly, or having it treated at a municipal wastewater treatment plant — which cannot be done due to the chemicals, salt and minerals that are present in the wastewater.
Michigan, however, has regulations that require the wastewater to be contained in steel tanks before being transported to deep disposal wells, which are licensed by the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the EPA for that type of waste. The water can stay there “indefinitely,” according to Fitch.
However, Clean Water Action’s Clark said that “forever is a long time.”
“The storage of wastewater is a huge concern,” he said. “There has been no long-term study.”
While no water well contamination has occurred as a direct result of fracking, spills at the surface can be a problem, according to Fitch. But he noted that is a concern with any type of drilling or the transportation of chemicals — and not just in the oil and gas industry.
However, it’s precisely the inevitability of human error that causes concern for the Sierra Club’s Chapman.
“Humans don’t do things perfectly,” she said. “If we could guarantee everyone was doing it perfectly, we would, but they don’t. People make mistakes all the time. And people take shortcuts all the time.”
But accidents aside, is the process itself safe?
Yes, according to various experts — provided that the proper procedures and regulations are followed.
“The process should be safe if people take the proper level of precaution,” U-M’s Wright said.
No major problems from fracking have been reported in Michigan, which DEQ Spokesman Brad Wurfel attributed to the state’s stringent regulatory measures.
“It’s been used on more than 12,000 wells in Michigan since the 1960s without any of the environmental incidents publicized in a handful of other states, largely because it’s tightly regulated here,” he said.
“Our No. 1 goal is environmental stewardship,” Wurfel added. “We regulate processes that interface with Michigan’s natural resources. We’ve done it successfully with this process for decades. If the process was truly posing a real threat to the natural resources, we’d further regulate it or shut it down. Instead, it’s been done safely and regularly in Michigan for a long time.”
Yet some remain dissatisfied with the state’s regulatory practices, leading to the introduction of five bills known as the “Frack Pack,” according to Clean Water Action’s Clark.
Three of these bills — House Bills (HBs) 5149, 5150 and 5151 — were introduced by state Reps. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor), Mark Meadows (D-East Lansing), and Brandon Dillon (D-Grand Rapids) last November.
State Rep. Lisa Brown (D-West Bloomfield) is also a co-sponsor of the bills.
According to Irwin, the bill he is sponsoring — HB 5149 — requires oil and gas companies to follow the same rules as all other citizens with respect to water use.
“The law says that if you use more than a certain threshold of water, then you need a permit for use and to make sure that you’re not negatively affecting your neighbors or the surrounding waters,” Irwin said.
The other two bills in the package go together. One requires a one-year study to be conducted in order to look at the best practices of fracking in other states. The other requires a one-year moratorium on fracking while that study is being conducted.
“The Michigan Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, and other groups have worked with legislators to introduce a group of bills,” Chapman said. “We want a study done by the DNR and DEQ and state agency scientists who would look at risks and problems and all the data and find what risks exist to water supplies before allowing fracking to continue.”
Two other bills, HBs 4736 and 5565, are also a part of the “Frack Pack” and would require companies to assume liability for any spills or mishaps and to disclose what chemical additives they are using in their fracking fluid concoction.
“When people hear about fracking, they immediately think this causes the water in the sink to turn on fire,” Clark said. “We’re not saying that. We just think we need proper regulations in place in Michigan in order to ensure this process is carried out in the best possible way.”
Yet, Fitch said DEQ officials feel that they have “a thorough comprehensive regulatory structure” that addresses the issues and protects environmental and public health.
Meanwhile, Wright said there is a lot of work being done at various levels to study and address the concerns people have expressed, which will make it easier to make a good assessment of the fracking process after those studies are completed.
“I really believe it has the potential to be a safe process as long as we make sure people aren’t cutting corners — which has happened in the past,” he said.