July 13 2011 12:00 AM

Natural gas becomes a popular energy source in Lansing amid concerns about the unnatural methods for extracting it


On a rainy May morning in Lansing’s REO
Town, Gov. Rick Snyder congratulated the Lansing Board of Water &
Light for moving forward on plans to start generating electricity from a
source other than coal.

BWL’s new cogeneration power and steam
plant to be based in the heart of REO Town is a nod to the future,
Snyder and BWL officials said, because it’ll run on natural gas. Snyder
said the BWL’s plant would be a model for innovation, efficiency and the
environment. “This is a great project,” he said. “Go for it.”

Snyder neglected to mention that all of that innovation has proven environmental risks. 

Environmental groups nationwide point to
potentially devastating consequences — some proven, some feared — of
moving toward natural gas because of the way we get it: hydraulic
fracturing. Or, in popular terms, fracking. 

And Michigan is a state “rich with
natural gas,” Snyder said. While Michigan’s environmental regulatory
agency says fracking is a tried and true method for capturing natural
gas here and that Michigan’s regulations are some of the tightest in the
nation, some environmental groups are calling for a temporary ban on
the practice — at least until tighter rules are adopted.

The concern is this: Because modern
fracking involves using millions of gallons of water and hundreds of
types of chemicals (many of which are trade secrets) to free up natural
gas in underground rock formations, there is the potential for this
mixture to leak into drinking water supplies. Some want assurance that
those millions of gallons of water are coming from sources that can
stand to lose it and won’t decimate fragile ecosystems. And then there’s
the lingering question of what to do with that water and chemical
mixture that can never be reused.

The practice has garnered headlines in
Pennsylvania and New York, though natural gas extraction is prevalent in
Gulf states and western states like Colorado and Wyoming. When
residents made the nightly news in Pennsylvania and Colorado because
they could light their kitchen sink faucets on fire after gas had
migrated into drinking water, fracking became documentary-worthy.

When BWL announced a year ago plans to
start moving beyond coal, the underlying issues of natural gas as an
energy source came forth: Is natural gas the future or simply a “bridge
fuel” between coal and renewable energy? How sustainable is natural gas
if the methods for extracting it pose serious environmental risks? And
how loud can the governor boast about using natural gas while the
state’s valuable water resources sit open to the elements?

All Eyes on REO Town

On July 16 last year, BWL announced plans
to build a $182 million steam and electricity plant to run solely on
natural gas. The utility said it would lower its greenhouse gas
emissions by 50 percent compared to the existing Moores River Park steam
plant, and cut the utility’s coal use by 139,000 tons a year. The plant
is scheduled to be operational in early- to mid-2013.

George Stojic, BWL’s planning director,
said the utility has a large stake in making sure fracking operations
don’t wreak havoc on drinking water supplies.

“We wear two hats. We’re focused on doing
this (producing energy) as environmentally friendly and as efficiently
as possible,” he said. “We also pump, treat and distribute 8 billion
gallons of drinking water annually. Protecting groundwater is very
important to us.”

Stojic acknowledged documented instances
outside of Michigan of fracking operations being “really problematic —
maybe how some of the drilling was done and certainly the toxic
chemicals used in it.”

While Stojic said the REO Town plant
would produce 100 percent of BWL’s steam, he was unsure how much of
BWL’s electricity would be generated from natural gas compared to coal.
But it’s a start: “You have multiple issues with respect to coal: the
ash, and air emissions. The natural gas is a much cleaner fuel.”

Home Grown

Fracking is not new. In Michigan, oil and
gas companies have been fracturing rock thousands of feet below ground
to get to natural gas for more than 60 years. 

However, the technique has been retooled
to go deeper and to use more water and chemicals, particularly in the
last five years. Terms like “large volume water withdrawal” and “high
volume hydraulic fracturing well completion” are defined in state
regulations that target these new methods. And deeper, horizontal-style
drilling makes risks to drinking water even greater.

In Michigan, natural gas is typically
drilled north of Clare County from the Antrim and Utica-Collingwood rock
formations. The latter has piqued the interests of the oil and gas
industry in recent years because of its natural gas reserves. However,
those reserves are buried thousands of feet deeper than in the Antrim
Shale and thus require more water and fracking fluid to penetrate.

As of June 6, the state Department of
Environmental Quality approved 18 permits for Utica-Collingwood
drilling. Of those, five were for horizontal wells. Another 13 permit
applications are pending. Of the 31 current and pending permits, 19 are
for the international oil and gas giant Chevron. Thousands of wells,
mostly shallower and vertical, are active in the Antrim Shale. A Chevron
spokesman did not return calls for comment.

Even though these new horizontal wells
require much more water — between three and eight million gallons — oil
and gas companies are exempt from Part 327, the state’s water withdrawal
statute that regulates how water is extracted. However, the DEQ’s
Office of Geological Survey requires companies to use the state’s online
water withdrawal “assessment tool” for disclosing how much water will
be used and where it’ll be extracted.

Hal Fitch, director of the DEQ’s Office
of Geological Survey, said these reporting requirements exist because
new fracking methods take on “sizable volumes” of water.

“That (online) tool will tell you if it’s
likely to endanger the surface water supply or diminish the flow in a
trout stream or something like that,” he said. “If there’s a red flag,
they can move or withdraw less or have the department do a site-specific

The state also requires cement lining on pipes as they pass through the water table.

Fitch, who has been with the DEQ since
1974 and head of the Office of Geological Survey since 1996, said his
office processes about 400 applications a year for wells throughout the

“Collingwood-Utica is the formation
that’s raised a lot of the recent concern among people that are wary of
potential adverse affects (of fracking). It’s raised some enthusiasm in
the oil and gas industry,” Fitch said.

While natural gas is produced in
Michigan, a majority of it is still imported. Fitch said Michigan
produces about 150 billion cubic feet of natural gas per year, or about
20 percent of what is used here. That means about 80 percent of the
natural gas used in Michigan is imported, mostly from Canada and Gulf
states, Fitch said.

James Clift, policy director for the
Lansing-based Michigan Environmental Council, said natural gas is
primarily used in the home heating market — “it’s kind of the perfect
fuel for that,” Clift said — which was historically dominated by coal.
In Canada, natural gas also is used to process oil extracted from tar
sands, which Clift calls “unfortunate.”

“It’s a crime at a certain level. They’re
using a very clean fuel to process one of the dirtiest fuels on the
planet,” he said. “It’s undervaluing and wasting natural gas.”

BWL’s Stojic said the utility is in the process of determining where it will get natural gas for the new facility. 

Proceed with Caution

David Hyndman, chairman of the Department of Geological
Sciences at Michigan State University, said the two main concerns with
fracking is “contamination associated with production” and the demands
on the water supply.

“When you frack, the fractures can penetrate an aquifer
and can release petroleum-related components and fracking fluids
containing a variety of things,” he said. “Fracking also takes a fairly
significant volume of water.”

When it comes to using natural gas as an alternative to
coal, Hyndman said it’s important to balance positives and negatives:
“With any new technology, it’s important to balance the positives — more
production and clearly we need more energy — versus the risks —
contamination of aquifers and directly into streams.

“I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing more of a connection if
these activities are going to happen, more environmental monitoring and
protection plans in place,” he said.

Even though there have been no major instances of
groundwater contamination in Michigan as a result of fracking,
environmental groups say it’s better to be safe than sorry.

For the past few months, some environmental groups —
including the Sierra Club of Michigan, Clean Water Action and Food &
Water Watch — have called on the state for a moratorium on new permits
for horizontal wells. In New York state, a de facto moratorium on such
permits has been in place since last year. That state’s environmental
regulatory agency issued a set of recommendations two weeks ago that
would ban the practice in certain areas to protect watersheds.

Rita Chapman, Clean Water Program director for the state
chapter of the Sierra Club, said while Michigan has better regulations
than other states when it comes to well construction, the water usage
reporting requirements could be strengthened. Moreover, the public has a
right to know the chemicals used in the process, she said.

“The public knows nothing. Some groups in the state are
advocating full disclosure of all the chemicals up front — we’re one of
those groups. We think it would be important for a homeowner surrounded
by fracking operations to know that,” she said.

A few of the known chemicals include hydrochloric acid
(commonly used to clean pools), ammonium persulfate (a bleaching agent),
benzene (which is found in diesel fuel) and ethylene glycol (used in
automotive antifreeze).

Fitch, of the DEQ, said anywhere from 25 percent to 75
percent of the fracking fluid comes back to the surface to be stored.
And not all fracking chemicals are unknown. A certain additive may be
made of “five or six” different chemicals and that “three or four” of
them may be disclosed. “The rest are proprietary. Ideally, I would like
to have that information. It is protected and there’s some limitations
on what we can demand,” he said.

Chapman said: “I want the whole recipe that’s used in wells on my back 40.”

Clift, of the Michigan Environmental Council, said the
council is working with “a coalition of groups to increase regulation”
in “about seven or eight areas” on fracking.

“A main one is disclosure of the chemicals being used to
make sure any of the chemicals released accidentally in a spill or that
worked its way into groundwater (are known) so people would know what to
look for,” he said. 

Also, the state does not require oil and gas companies to
disclose any information about the drilling operation — like how deep
the well is, what kind of rock its penetrating and what chemicals are
being used — in the first 60 days of drilling. 

“The first 60 days kind of happens in secrecy,” Clift
said. “Well-drillers didn’t want to give a heads-up to the competition
where they were looking. Our concern is that this disclosure of
chemicals is coming after the fact.”

However, the MEC stopped short of joining other groups on calling for a moratorium, Clift said.

“This is a practice Michigan has been engaged in for
decades. We’ve done it up until now with relatively few instances of any
releases at all — in the single digits with thousands of wells that
have been drilled,” he said. “But they (fracking operations) have gotten
larger, causing a little bit more of a concern now. And if the price of
natural gas was to escalate, we’d see a lot more of this activity.”

Clift believes the fracking controversy isn’t as heated in
Michigan compared to eastern states because “we have a history of
regulating better than they have,” which includes better storage rules
for leftover water. “Not to say we can’t do better.”

Bridge Fuel and Gimmicks

Natural gas is often referred to as a “bridge fuel”
between coal and renewable energy like wind and solar because it has its
benefits (it’s an abundant, domestic energy source) and its downsides
(methane emissions and modern fracking techniques). 

“The positives of natural gas are still that it burns
cleaner than coal. It’s more efficient than coal,” Chapman of the Sierra
Club said. “For coal they’re blowing up tops of mountains (to get it).
For natural gas, they’re blowing the bottoms out of water aquifers.
Which is worse?”

Moving forward, Chapman and Clift each said modern energy policy should be centered around efficiency and conservation.

Clift said while Michigan is a relatively small player in
the global natural gas market, the global demand and supply of it is
growing — for now.

“We’re miniscule players in the global
natural gas market,” he said. “For the most part, that market looks like
there’s sufficient supply coming into it. People seem to be thinking
prices are going to remain relatively low at least for the short term.
After that, say in five to 10 years, all bets are off.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that by
2020, shale gas will make up more than 20 percent of the total U.S. gas
supply. The EPA’s “Draft Hydraulic Fracturing Study Plan” is in the
works, which will detail the impacts of fracking on water supplies.
Research results are expected by the end of 2012.

Hyndman, who has been at MSU since 1995, said when you look at energy supply, “there are very few if any safe alternatives. 

“Clearly petroleum has a lot of risks associated with it,
like greenhouse gas emissions. The same for coal. Natural gas does still
produce carbon dioxide and methane, which is still a greenhouse gas
stronger than carbon dioxide,” he said. “It’s not an easy solution but
one of the issues is: we clearly need energy and have to look at a wide
range of options.”

Documentary filmmaker Josh Fox exposed fracking in his
2010 film, “Gasland,” after he was asked to lease his property for
drilling. It takes shots at the lack of federal oversight and claims the
industry gets to write its own rules when it comes to disclosing
chemicals. And the film sets out in search of residents who can light
their faucets on fire because of methane leaks into drinking water
supplies attributed to fracking.

Fitch saw the movie “numerous times” and doesn’t think too highly of it.

“That so-called documentary is for entertainment purposes.
It’s not conveying facts. Accidents happen,” he said. “I’d be the last
to say, ‘Don’t worry about it (fracking),’ but the movie doesn’t connect
cause and effect. It’s sensationalism. He purposely went out of his way
to find problem areas. It’s like saying we had a plane crash three or
four years ago so we shouldn’t have any more air traffic. It doesn’t
mean would should cease all activity.”

Chapman said the goal of the moratorium is to see
regulations “tightened up that would not turn us into another gimmick,”
like Pennsylvania.

Clift said MEC supports BWL’s new cogeneration plant. “We
think it’s part of the alternative energy plan we laid out for the
utility,” he said.

When asked if a moratorium on new horizontal drilling
permits would be beneficial, Stojic of BWL said: “I don’t think so.” He
believes a widespread decision from federal regulators in the next year
or two should chart the course of the fracking industry. But to step
away from natural gas means possibly reverting to coal — a “trade-off,”
he said.

“What I am interested in is prudent drilling,” he said.
“Reasonable controls to protect the environment and absolutely protect
our drinking water.”