Hydraulic Fracking: The Thumb Deserves Answers

Sometime in January 2010, a new technology proved promising to extract natural gas from deep shale using hydraulic fracking. This resulted in many farmers in the Thumb being approached by oil companies with offers to sell the mineral rights to their land. Governor Granholm helped arrange for the lease of about $178M of such rights concerning properties owned by the State of Michigan. Apparently, this comes close to being about as much as Michigan has earned altogether since it started selling such rights. More sales took place October 26, 2010 and netted about $10M. (1) 

This past summer, meetings were held in Bad Axe to basically help farmers sort out what they should look for in a contract for sale of mineral rights to their land. What hasn’t been discussed is the impact hydraulic fracking will have on the quality of the water, including drinking water, for ALL of us who reside in the Thumb.

What is hydraulic fracking?
Hydraulic fracturing is a mining method that involves injecting massive amounts of toxic chemical brine deep underground in order to release natural gas (among other things). The fracturing operation is intended to create fractures that extend from the wellbore into the target oil or gas formations. Injected fluids may travel as far as 3,000 feet horizontally from the well head.

Why be concerned?
Little is known yet about the safety of the process, especially this new process that allows deep extraction. But, one thing seems to be clear. It takes a LOT of water and in the process pollutes the water to the point there doesn’t seem to be a safe way to dispose of it. There are stories of tap water catching on fire. (2) And, in Wyoming, the federal government has apparently advised residents not to drink their water. (3) Some advocate disposing of the toxic water created by this process by pumping it deep into the ground below the water table where it is hoped it will stay for a very long time.

Why pollution laws are inadequate
The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) is the main federal law that ensures the quality of Americans’ drinking water. But, under the SDWA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) does not regulate the injection of fracturing fluids under the Safe Drinking Water Act. This allows known hazardous materials to be injected, unchecked, directly into or adjacent to underground drinking water supplies. This exemption from the provisions of the SDWA has become known as the “Halliburton loophole”. Attempts to close the “Halliburton loophole” have not been very successful. (4) Furthermore, under the Michigan Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act Part 327, gas and oil companies are exempt from disclosing water withdrawals. The Pioneer (5) natural gas well, near Lake City Michigan displaced 5.5 million gallons of water for fracking which exceeded the water extraction limits of the act. The well had received a waiver that is available for certain types of gas and oil drilling. On August 13, 2010 the Office of Geological Survey Department of Natural Resources and Environment suggested that Michigan laws were adequate in its report entitled “Hydraulic Fracturing Of Natural Gas Wells In Michigan” but did not address the above concerns in any depth. (6) On September 29, 2010, Sen. Liz Brater (D) introduced Senate Bill 1531 to impose groundwater discharge permit regulations, fees, permit requirements, etc. on the use of “hydraulic fracturing” to extract natural gas. Whether or not this bill will pass in any form is unclear.

While I am not against Michigan citizens earning a living from the sale of oil and natural gas, I believe strongly that the oil and gas companies that profit from hydraulic fracking should not pass the costs of cleaning up the water made toxic in the process onto the taxpayers of Michigan. Water is a resource just like oil and gas. True, unlike oil and gas, it is often argued that water is a resource owned by the people and held in trust by their government. But, bottom line, water is NOT free. Those who use it should pay for its use.

What should we, as citizens and voters, be doing?
At this point, too little is known about hydraulic fracking. True, the process has been around for a long time but not in it’s latest form that will require such an extensive use of one of our most precious resources, our water. Michigan is a state in desperate need of jobs for the unemployed. Hydraulic fracking could provide much needed jobs. But, must these jobs depend on allowing hydraulic fracking to be done in a way that destroys our future water supply? At this point in time, we just don’t know. So, let’s find out.

And, until we do have answers, let’s not grant exemptions to displacements of water to accommodate hydraulic fracking. Let’s pass a law in Michigan that would NOT exempt hydraulic fracking from the provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Let’s develop our own state laws and regulations for the use and preservation of this most precious resource we too often take for granted.

It will take all of us working together for the good of Michigan citizens and future generations to make sure hydraulic fracking brings the benefits we need in terms of our economy to the Thumb without having to give away our rights, and those of future generations, to water.

(1) State of Michigan, Department of Natural Resources
(2) CNN.com (eatocracy)
(3) Scientific American
(4) Earthworks.org
(5) Michigan Land Use Institute
(6) State of Michigan

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