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Oil and gas is big business for Kalkaska County

Environmental watchdog Paul Brady, who contributes to the website RespectMyPlanet.org, is leery of this bold new technology known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and its potential effects on local watersheds.

But Brady doesn’t think fracking should be banned outright, he told me on a gray March day as we toured various frack well sites around Kalkaska County.

“If you ban fracking, you’d stop oil and gas in Michigan, and put 100,000 people out of work,” he said. Brady’s views reflect those of many in the Michigan environmental community who favor a more pragmatic approach to monitoring and regulating the activity.

At the corner of US-131 and M-72, in the heart of the town of Kalkaska, we pass several trucks owned by local contractors that are hauling supplies and equipment for the energy giants Encana and Halliburton. If Michigan voters were to pass a ban on fracking, those multinational oil and gas corporations would leave town and pull the rug out from under local subcontractors, Brady said.

Local jobs tied to the oil and gas industry have surged over the past decade as Kalkaska County landed on the map of fracking companies like Encana, which by its own estimate has invested more than $230 million and created hundreds of jobs in Michigan since 2009.

According to figures supplied by the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments, Kalkaska County-based jobs in the mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction industry ballooned from 237 in 2003, to 541 last year – a 10-year increase of 128 percent. Government was the only field to employ more Kalkaskans in 2013.

According to the industry group America’s Natural Gas Alliance, shale gas from fracking accounted for just 27 percent of total U.S. natural gas production in 2010. By 2015 that figure will increase to 43 percent, and hit 60 percent by 2035 while creating one million new U.S. jobs.

In Kalkaska County, the average worker in the oil and gas field last year made over $64,000 in wages, a high mark for a rural county where unemployment tops 10 percent. Perhaps most telling of all, Kalkaska boasted more than 8 percent of all oil and gas jobs in Michigan, though the county has less than 0.2 percent of the state’s population.

“Historically, Kalkaska County has had a close relationship with the oil and gas industry,” says Matt McCauley, director for regional planning at Northwest Michigan Council of Governments. “However, in the last 10 years, due to a number of factors including, demand and new extraction methods, job growth has increased significantly — more so than in most other areas of the state.”

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