Nov. 20 2015 11:08 AM

New study evaluates fracking in Michigan

LANSING — A new report breaks down what’s up with fracking in Michigan.

The multi-million dollar question is if gas prices go, up will fracking increase?

Locations of high-volume hydraulic fracturing in Michigan.
Image courtesy Department of Environmental Quality

Researchers at the U-M Graham Sustainability Institute analyzed a variety of policy options, and experts addressed three areas of policy concern: chemical disclosure, public input and water protection.

They explored options like requiring the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to respond to public comments about state land lease proposals for hydraulic fracturing. Another option calls on the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to hear local concerns about fracking if a lease is approved. The state currently requires no such public input..

The research focused on high-volume fracturing, which uses more water and requires deeper drilling.

It accounts for only a dozen or so projects in the state, said John Callewaert, the institute’s integrated assessment manager.

The state now has high-volume wells in Crawford, Newaygo, Kalkaska, Montmorency, Missaukee and Hillsdale counties, according to the DEQ. There are active permits for fracking operations in Antrim, Missaukee, Kalkaska and Clare counties, and wells have been drilled elsewhere in the Lower Peninsula, including Oceana County.

But the U-M report, which refrained from recommending a course of action, addresses outcomes if the process were to spike in popularity.

That’s possible, considering lucrative land-leasing and steeper gas prices, Callewaert said. The DNR administers state lands for which companies can purchase mineral rights for hydraulic fracturing exploration.

In 2012, the DNR auctioned public land mineral rights for natural gas exploration.

“They made more in that one-day auction than they made in previous decades,” Callewaert said.

Many of those purchases have yet to result in drilling, he said. But the report addresses the “what ifs” and public concerns if drilling began.

“We wanted more clear opportunities for folks to know about the process and also offer input,” Callewaert said.

That was also the DEQ’s goal when it recently adopted regulations to increase the public’s awareness of how chemicals are used and how water is consumed during high-volume fracturing.

The report further dug into ways to increase the public’s access to fracking “unknowns.”

One option is for companies to publish information on FracFocus, a website that discloses chemical use on a public registry.

More people — not just scientists and environmentalists — want such information, Callewaert said. “Even companies want to share this information so they’re not questioned constantly. It’s really about more transparency from multiple sectors.”

The Michigan Oil and Gas Association presented a more negative assessment of the report’s findings, Callewaert said.

Erin McDonough, president of the industry group, said expansion to tap other oil-bearing shale areas won’t happen for years. She called the U-M report “overly pessimistic about the industry’s future prospects in the state.”

Environmentalists want to address the potential expansion of drilling proactively. One more stringent safeguard would require updating a Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool used to ensure that using substantial amounts of water won’t harm nearby water bodies.

James Clift, policy director of the Michigan Environmental Council, and Grenetta Thomassey, executive director of Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council based in Petoskey, highlighted the policy options that the groups say require stricter water safeguards.

While the report “does not recommend any specific course of action, it offers valuable input that can help Michigan regulators improve the state’s oversight of fracking,” the Environmental Council said in its analysis of the U-M study.

The team of environmental, industry and scientists also analyzed policies elsewhere, such as high-volume hydraulic fracturing moratoriums like those in New York and Maryland.

A ban would be a comprehensive way to address all of the concerns, U-M’s Callewaert said, but it would cost revenue for mineral rights owners and from the sale of drilling rights on public lands.

Organizers of a proposal to ban fracking n the state recently acknowledged falling far short in gathering enough signatures to put the issue on the 2016 statewide ballot. The Charlevoix-based Committee to Ban Fracking in Michigan’s petition drives also failed to secure enough voter signatures for the 2012 and 2014 elections.

Even so, the group said a poll earlier this month showed that 59 percent of state residents want a ban on fracking and frack wastes and 66 percent want to ban frack waste.

COURTNEY BOURGOIN



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