Researchers finish study of Michigan oil, gas fracking

Michigan's oil and gas industry and its regulators have a long way to go toward convincing the public that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is environmentally sound, said the director of a study on the practice released Wednesday.
Copyright, The Associated Press

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Michigan's oil and gas industry and its regulators have a long way to go toward convincing the public that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is environmentally sound, said the director of a study on the practice released Wednesday.

Researchers with the University of Michigan spent three years studying how the drilling process is conducted and overseen in the state, and what might be done to improve it. The analysis takes no position on the use of fracking and makes no recommendations, but offers numerous options, such as including local residents in the decision making and strengthening regulation of freshwater use for fracking.

Fracking uses mixtures of water, chemicals and sand injected deep underground at high pressure to open cracks in shale and other sedimentary rock, releasing oil or natural gas. The industry and Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality say the technique has been used safely on more than 12,000 wells in the state since the late 1940s.

But the practice has sparked a national debate, with critics arguing that fracking wastes huge quantities of fresh water and could pollute groundwater supplies.

"There's kind of a disconnect between how the general public understands (fracking) and how regulators and industry understand the topic," said project leader John Callewaert of the University of Michigan's Graham Sustainability Institute.

Many ordinary citizens, he said, "wonder what will this mean for Pure Michigan if we've got fracking going on all over the place?"

Opponents in Michigan are trying to gather enough petition signatures to force a statewide ballot initiative next year on whether to ban a fracking procedure that involves drilling deep wells, then angling them horizontally for up to 2 miles through rock formations to boost productivity.

The study's final analysis focuses on high-volume fracking, which uses at least 100,000 gallons of fluid in wells up to 10,000 feet deep. Only 14 such wells currently produce natural gas in the state, although the number could jump if prices rise and development becomes more cost-effective.

The report, a final analysis from about three years of research, presents ideas on stepping up public participation in setting high-volume fracking policies, including making sure public interests are represented as decisions are made about leasing state mineral rights for drilling and permitting wells.

Because the state previously has 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.

Among the options is giving more notice to people living near places targeted for drilling leases and allowing those who would be affected by permitting new wells to seek a public hearing.

"Public hearings have not traditionally been applied to energy exploration," said Erin McDonough, president of the MichiganOil and Gas Association, an industry group. "But in the last few years, and as the public has taken greater interest in energy issues, we have learned the need to be better engaged with communities where we have interest in exploration activities."

The report says further development in two of Michigan's deep-shale formations, the Utica and Collingwood, is "likely years away." McDonough said the report is overly pessimistic about the industry's future prospects in the state.

Other sections of the report deal with water resource protection and chemical usage. Among options it lists are strengthening regulation of freshwater withdrawals for fracking, stepping up efforts to recycle wastewater, requiring disclosure to the state of all chemicals mixed with water for fracking operations, and long-term monitoring of surface and ground water supplies near fracked wells.

The report also incorporates updated regulations that the DEQ adopted earlier this year that require more preparation and monitoring of water levels during fracking, as well as greater public disclosure of chemicals used.

The report has useful information and options for regulators to consider, DEQ Director Dan Wyant said.

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