(Photo credit: Heather Rousseau of Circle of Blue.org)
Special Report: Five years ago if you said the word “frack”, you may have been taken for a recovering potty mouth. But today, fracking—lingo for hydraulic fracturing, a procedure used to extract natural gas and oil from shale rock formations—has become a household term nationwide thanks to a recent flurry of films, articles, and protests attempting to defame the practice.
But fracking, which uses powerful injections of chemical fluid and sand to crack deep-seated rock and release gas and oil deposits, has been going on for more than 60 years.
“With respect to hydraulic fracturing we’ve been regulating this for a very, very long time,” said Brad Wurfel, director of communications for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). “It’s as old as the freeways.”
So what changed?
Advancements in technology have made fracking more economical and companies better equipped to access vast energy reserves previously thought unreachable according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
These rapid developments in drilling methods have positioned fracking as a champion of U.S. energy independence. They also have roused the ire of environmentalists, filmmakers, and citizens concerned that widespread fracking could contaminate food and water supplies.
Despite it’s history, fracking has not been researched thoroughly enough to tell whether its pros outweigh its cons, according to Barry Rabe, Professor of Public and Environmental Policy at the University of Michigan and Director of the Center for Local, State and Urban Policy.
Use of the procedure has outgrown the rate of the research surrounding it, allowing supporters and opponents of the unconventional gas extraction method to run unchecked with unsound statistics, Rabe suggests.
“Shale [fracturing] is not a new industry but it is expanding on a scale not anticipated,” Rabe told MIchronicle.com. “I would argue we’re just at the point of beginning to think about a real science research program [to explore] fracking.”
Rabe noted that a number of studies conducted to measure the environmental impact of fracking have been discredited due to their incestuous ties to the gas and oil industry.
And while there have been reports of ground water contamination in areas where fracking has taken place, none of these have been linked to it in the absence of credible long-term research.
“There’s not a lot of research before and after [fracking],” Rabe said. “We just don’t know.”
Fracking In Michigan
Despite its half-century-plus run in Michigan, hydraulic fracturing has not been a large enterprise in the state, something Governor Rick Snyder is looking to change.
In a public address in November, Snyder unveiled his administration’s plan to research and expand hydraulic fracturing in Michigan.
Snyder touted the plan as one that would buoy Michigan’s economy, offer a cleaner alternative to coal, and lower gas bills statewide.
Perhaps fracking’s biggest environmental challenges have been concerns over its stumping the development of renewable energy, its massive water use, and the chemicals used in the “fracking fluid”.
A number of Michigan grassroots organizations are calling for the elimination of the practice claiming it threatens water and food safety in the areas it takes place. Some states have legislation pending that would halt the practice until further research has been conducted, and the state of Vermont has banned fracking altogether.
“Millions and millions of gallons of good water turned into a toxic, radioactive-laden, carcinogenic chemical “soup” – stored in huge pits or re-injected deep into Mother Earth – is not acceptable to those who care about protecting the health and safety of the waters of Michigan . . . or of the grandchildren,” Victor McManemy, chair of Citizens for Alternatives to Chemical Contamination said in a statement last year.
But according to Wufel the current fear of fracking is coming from a world of “what ifs”. Thus far, he says there have been no environmental or health mishaps to tar its reputation in Michigan.
“With 60 plus years and 12,000 wells behind us we are confident that we can produce gas and oil in this state and still keep protecting the environment,” Wurfel said, adding the future gas production through fracking could be “quite large”.
The key is making sure Michigan, currently a small scale natural gas producer, is equipped to safely handle the growing pains brought by a rapid fracking expansion.
Rabe suggests Michigan’s record is hard to compare to states with higher levels of fracturing activity.
“In the Michigan case we’re talking about a small amount of activity not a high scale operation,” he said. “We’re only beginning to explore that.”
It’s too early to tell whether Michigan will plunge full throttle into fracking or more gradually expand.
“It’s generally understood that market conditions will play a big role in how quickly or how soon gas development ramps up in the state,” Wufel said via e-mail. “But the DEQ is ready to manage whatever happens.”
Michigan V. Pennsylvania
Perhaps the nation’s best example fast fracking expansion comes from Pennsylvania. In 2011 alone, natural gas production more than doubled in the Keystone State to make up more than 1 trillion cubic feet due to production from the fracking of Marcellus shale—sedimentary marine rock located thousands of feet deep in the earth’s crust—according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).
Pennsylvania, formerly famous for coal production, has recently been dubbed the Saudi Arabia of natural gas due to its vast gas stores paired with increasingly aggressive shale drilling strategy.
This hasn’t come without controversy. A number of scathing films such as Gasland and Promised Land used Pennsylvania as ground zero for what they painted as a pending environmental disaster.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania lawmakers have been fighting to keep up with the state’s spreading pursuit of natural gas in shale.
One prominent example of this is the passage of Pennsylvania Act 13 of 2012, which mandates tougher environmental standards, establishes no-drill zones, and enhances protection of water supplies according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
But Michigan has a longer history in regulating the now controversial extraction technique. Energy company representatives operating in Michigan say regulations here are already some of the toughest.
Greg Brown, Executive Vice President of Burn Brite Energy, a gas company that operates in several states including Michigan, says the mitten is no regulatory breeze. “Michigan regulations are greater than or as strict as any state I’ve worked in,” Brown said.
An example of this comes from rigorous testing of well sleeves; protective steel piping filled with cement before fracturing occurs.
“A gas or oil well isn’t just a hole in the ground,” Wufel said. “Operators test the integrity of the cement before they finish the well with fracturing.”
One of environmentalist’s major concerns with fracking is the issue of wastewater disposal. The process uses large amounts of water and sand mixed with chemicals to fracture shale leaving behind large amounts of toxic liquid leftovers.
“We require that chemical liquids are handled very carefully in steel lined containers and injected deep into the earth,” Wufel said. “If they come out they can potentially contaminate groundwater. But Wufel said noted that the act of fracturing is a one-time, two-day event that opens a well for decades of production. “The public should understand that our mission is to protect Michigan’s land, air and water.”
While Michigan disposes of its fracking fluid in-state, Pennsylvania has geological barriers preventing such action.
That’s why Pennsylvania exports its toxic fracking waste to be buried in Ohio despite controversy in the receiving state.
Real benefits from fracking’s gas production boom may not come for decades as the nation continues its dependence on coal. Despite the steep natural gas influx, Pennsylvania still generated 44 percent of its net electricity from coal and 33 percent from nuclear power in 2011 according to the EIA.
But U.S. unconventional gas production is geared for a steep climb, the EIA predicts: It is set to represent nearly 50 percent of total U.S. gas production in 2035 compared to 23 percent in 2010.
This outlook puts Michigan in a promising place. In 2010, Michigan had more underground natural gas storage capacity – 1.1 trillion cubic feet – than any other State in the Union.
Like Pennsylvania, in 2011, Michigan’s three nuclear power plants and coal influx accounted for more than 80 percent the state’s net electricity.
Policy And Regulation
Due to limited Federal regulations on fracking, it’s up to the states to decide how they want to control this growing, unconventional gas extraction method.
It’s a chance for local policymakers to ask, “What does fracking policy look like?” Rabe said.
On the enforcement side, perhaps winning public confidence is a regulator’s biggest challenge. “Most of our environmental policy is reaction [after] something bad happens,” Rabe said, suggesting that charges in films like Gasland, regardless of accuracy, serve as a type of preventative scare tactic.
In a way, regulation agencies and activist filmmakers are in a race to shape public opinion on the growing industry as it emerges in the national spotlight.
“We need policies that are transparent, that are rigorous and efficient and gain public confidence. That’s the challenge.” Rabe said.
Some argue that the debate on fracking, especially in Michigan, has missed the point.
“I think what’s been lost in this conversation is that we have a fine regulatory program,” Wurfel said adding that charges in films like Gasland are unfounded. “If I heard what [people] have been hearing I’d be concerned as well.”
While Wurfel asserts that fracking regulations in Michigan are some of the best in the country, he said the DEQ understands that fracking is a serious business that has to be handled with strict oversight. According to Wurfel, the DEQ would like to see more transparency in the process—to ease public worry, if nothing else.
He said companies should be required to disclose their fracturing fluid formulas. Though these mostly contain water and sand, a small percentage of deadly chemicals used in the fluid is often lodged at the center of the fracking controversy.
“I think disclosure would go quite a way to make people feel more comfortable about the process,” he said. “Right now [the fracking fluid formulas] are protected under federal law just like the Colonel’s famous recipe.”
The general ingredients of fracking fluid are posted on the DEQ website, but exact formulas are not currently available—even to regulators.
It’s not just environmental questions that burden many aspects of the energy industry but taxing issues as well. “How do you tax gas extraction? What do these taxes pay for?” Are just two among swarm of questions on the topic, Rabe said. In Michigan, severance taxes imposed on energy companies go to cover regulation costs, presenting what some consider a conflict of interest.
The measure of good energy policy is finding a balance of production and safety. If Michigan can do that with fracturing shale, it could hit an economic gold mine. If not, it could hit a PR disaster, or worse.
One key benefit to accessing natural gas in shale includes inching closer to energy independence; something Rabe notes has been “the hallmark of every president since Richard Nixon through Barack Obama.”
Still, sound research is a missing piece to the fracking puzzle. To help address that, Rabe has joined the newly formed National Research Council on Risk Management and Governance Issues in Shale Gas Development.
“Universities are thinking about some of the natural gas issues and are looking at this more closely … it’s beginning around the world,” he said.
For regulatory agencies like the Michigan DEQ, Wurfel says all the tools are in place for successful maximization of the state’s natural gas resources.
“It’s a short story. Folks have a concern that the environment is not being protected. We believe it is,” he said. “We regularly review and update our regulatory protocols as necessary. Right now we are feeling very good about the structure of regulations. I’m pleased to see the governor making decisions to [expand natural gas production] that could help bring Michigan forward.”