University of Michigan researchers recently completed a three-year study of the practice of natural gas fracking and how it is managed by the state government. While the analysis they provided did not take a position on fracking, it did offer options such as the inclusion of residents impacted by fracking in the decision-making process in order to strengthen the regulation of the use of freshwater resources utilized.
The fracking process mixed water, sand, and proprietary chemicals that are injected at high pressure into deep wells in order to free natural gas and petroleum from sedimentary rock sub-strata. The technique has been used for decades, while the state Department of Environmental Quality says that it has been used safely in approximately 12,000 well. Over the last decade, as consumers such as electric plants have switched to natural gas from coal, gas prices have increased and thus exploration and drilling. It has proven to be contentious, not only in Michigan, but elsewhere in the United States and Europe.
Critics of the practice fear that fracking not only uses large quantities of fresh water, but can also pollute supplies of groundwater. The leader of the study, Prof. John Callewaert of the University of Michigan said of the controversy, “There’s kind of a disconnect between how the general public understands (fracking) and how regulators and industry understand the topic.” He added that Michiganders “wonder what will this mean for Pure Michigan if we’ve got fracking going on all over the place?” The ‘Pure Michigan’ motto has been used in advertising Michigan as a vacation destination that is also open for business. The study was released on September 23.
High-volume fracking uses at least 100,000 gallons of fluid in wells up to 10,000 feet deep. In Michigan, only 14 such wells currently produce natural gas. However, the number may increase if natural gas prices rise. The report offered ideas on public participation in setting policies, including the representation of the public interest in leasing state mineral rights for drilling and permitting wells. According to the report, because the State of Michigan had treated fracking as just another oil and gas development activity, “the public has had few opportunities to weigh in on whether and where (it) occurs,” the report says. The study noted the option of giving local citizens affected by the drilling to seek public hearings.
The report also deals with the protection of water as a resource, and the regulation of chemical usage. It listed as options the strengthening regulation of freshwater withdrawals for fracking, increased efforts to recycle wastewater, requiring disclosure to the state of all chemicals mixed with water for fracking operations, and the monitoring of surface and ground water supplies near wells. Natural gas companies have been loath to reveal the chemical composition of the fluids used in fracking, using the argument that they are proprietary. The report called for reporting the pressures and volumes being used for fracking, and that well operators must post information about the chemical additives they use to the online FracFocus Chemical Disclosure Registry.
Oil and gas wells in Michigan (2005), MI DEQ
The changes include full incorporation of the new Michigan Department of Environmental Quality rules on high-volume hydraulic fracturing. In the draft version of the U-M report, released in February, the new DEQ regulations are described as proposed rule changes and were analyzed as policy options.
Changes implemented by the state now require more preparatory work and monitoring of water levels in high-volume hydraulic fracturing projects. In addition, DEQ must be notified at least 48 hours before such operations begin.
The U-M report "helped us see an opportunity to strengthen our protection of water and give the public more information," said Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, in March. "We are pleased at the level of thoughtful interest and exchange this issue is receiving outside of government."
Despite assurances from government and industry, activist groups are seeking a total ban on fracking. The Sierra Club, for instance, is seeking to put a fracking ban to the vote on a state ballot in 2016. It plans to mobilize 60,000 members and supporters. Earlier this year, David Holtz, who chairs the Sierra Club’s Michigan executive committee, says that the group wants to allow Michigan voters – who he said “overwhelmingly” want to protect their natural resources – to overcome what he called “the oil industry's grip on Lansing and protect our state."
Among the issues that concern neighborhood activists and environmentalists is the proposed expansion of operations at a hazardous waste facility in Detroit. The state Department of Environmental Quality is weighing a permit request from U.S. Ecology, a company that owns a waste site in Detroit that has been used to treat and store waste products, including hazardous materials, for almost two decades. The company wants to step up the amount of waste material it will process and store on site. The new DEQ permit could permit U.S. Ecology to increase its hazardous waste storage from the current equivalent of 64,000 gallons to 650,000 gallons. Of the prospect of increased fracking waste, which some fear may be radioactive, Holtz said “Michigan shouldn't be the dumping grounds for other states' radioactive and chemical fracking wastes and we shouldn't be putting our public health and our waters at risk."
U.S. Ecology says that it has operated safely for 40 years. But this is the second time in recent months that public criticism has focused on its operations. In 2014, its Wayne Disposal Inc. facility in Belleville MI was criticized for the handling of hydraulic fracturing sludge from out of state. The facility is one of 17 in the United States qualified to handle this wastes, which is categorized as technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material.