Natural gas drilling technique Draws concerns assurances

December 12, 2010
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LANSING — Fracking: It’s a new word that’s quickly becoming a familiar part of the vocabulary for some residents in natural-gas-rich parts of the state.

Short for hydraulic fracturing, fracking is the process of shooting water into the ground to create small breaks in a layer of rock.

In Michigan’s case, drilling companies want to release stores of natural gas from shale formations in counties such as Alpena, Charlevoix and Cheboygan.

“Right now, we’re producing about 170 billion cubic feet of gas per year,” said Hal Fitch, director of the office of geological survey at the Department of Natural Resources and Environment. “The value of that is about $800 million.”

The top five counties for natural gas production are Montmorency, Otsego, Antrim, Alpena and Manistee.

The success of a pioneer well in Missaukee County created excitement about the potential for large quantities of natural gas in the Collingwood shale formation — as well as concern about environmental effects and the strength of state regulations.

“Each one of these wells uses a minimum of 200 million gallons of fresh water to frack it,” said Grenetta Thomassey, program director at the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council. “That water has chemicals added to it, so it basically gets polluted and is never returned to the hydrological cycle. So once they use this groundwater and take it out of the system, it’s gone forever.”

After it’s used, the water is disposed of in deep-injection wells, Thomassey said, which are usually about 4,500 deep.

Tip of the Mitt is a Petosky-based nonprofit organization that advocates protection of Michigan’s water resources.

Thomassey said some chemical-laced water shot into the ground during fracking stays there, potentially contaminating groundwater. She added that removing water from aquifers can also alter the flow and temperature of streams, harming fish populations.

“We want to make sure that the strong regulations that we have on the books keep up with the improving technology,” Thomassey said. “We already have good, decent laws in place for oil and gas regulation, but we’re not in the 21st century.”

Tip of the Mitt was part of a group of organizations that recently asked the DNRE to increase oversight of the fracking process.

The DNRE’s Fitch said the state is highly involved in drilling regulations. For example, companies must apply for drilling permits, and DNRE then assesses each site to make sure it won’t have adverse environmental or public health effects, such as water contamination, soil erosion or injury to wildlife.

Inspectors also check drilling units and casings for the pipes that contain the water and natural gas to ensure they’re safe. In addition, companies must document chemicals used in their fracking fluid.

If a company gets a permit, Fitch said, DNRE inspects the site every few days, then oversees restoration of the site if the well is depleted or was unproductive.

“We regulate oil and gas development pretty much from cradle to grave,” Fitch said.

He said there about 53 people at the DNRE work with oil and gas regulation, 25 of them as inspectors — a number that hasn’t changed significantly over the past five years.

Fitch doesn’t anticipate hiring employees despite the potential for increased natural gas drilling and isn’t sure how many of the approximately eight retiring employees will be replaced.

“I don’t expect we’re going to see such an increase in drilling that we couldn’t handle it,” Fitch said.

Mecosta County saw increased activity in leasing of mineral rights during the spring, said Karen Hahn, register of deeds for the county.

“All summer long, we had quite a few people doing mineral searches,” Hahn said. “It quieted down in October.”

Some environmental concerns that go along with fracking were exaggerated during that surge, said William Harrison, a geology professor at Western Michigan University.

He said used water can be returned to the hydrological cycle if treated properly. And although the quantity used is a concern, the amount is small relative to that used by other industries, Harrison added.

“A lot of the agricultural systems have wells that use a million gallons of water a day,” Harrison said. “Since the 1920s, the DNRE has been permitting and regulating oil and gas wells, and we’ve had a few issues, but nothing like you’ve heard about in other places in the country.”

Harrison noted that natural gas is a valuable asset to the state economy.

“Michigan doesn’t produce much of its own energy — we produce about 30 percent of the natural gas we use,” Harrison said. “Any opportunity we have to increase that amount with our own homegrown energy is important. Certainly, the economy in the state can use any boost it can get.”

Michigan made $178 million last May and $10 million in October by auctioning mineral rights to 118,000 acres.

Tip of the Mitt’s Thomassey said, “If, in fact, the Collingwood shale has the type of gas that would be profitable for the industry to go after, then that would be great for the state. But — and this is a big but — it can only be great for the state if the regulations are up to speed and are protective of the water that makes Michigan what it is,” she said. “Our water resources are the lifeblood of the Great Lakes state.”

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