A divisive practice's pros and cons

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is an innovative and cost-saving process for drilling oil and gas from rock formations far underground, and is a booming industry in Michigan. Proponents say fracking is safe and note its positive impact on the state economy. Critics say the process carries risks, both known and unknown, to Michigan’s water supply and public health and should be more closely monitored by regulatory agencies.

Pros

  • There are enough fossil fuels “locked” in bedrock shale formations under North American soil to make the United States energy independent, and a net exporter of oil and gas, in the near future.
  • Tapping those energy sources would make the United States less dependent, economically and politically, on unstable countries such as Venezuela and the Middle East. It would also enable the West to be less dependent on Russian natural gas, which Vladimir Putin currently uses as a political lever.
  • The natural gas industry claims that fracking is safe because the shale formations lie far below the water table and pose a minimal threat to groundwater. They also claim that drilling for oil and gas is nothing new: we’ve been drilling for oil and gas for decades.
  • Using natural gas to heat our homes and power our cars releases far fewer carbon emissions than coal. Proponents describe the growing natural gas industry as an environmentally pragmatic “bridge fuel” that will buy time until we can harness the power of wind, solar and hydro on a mass scale.
  • In places like Kalkaska County, the oil and gas industry is big business, providing hundreds of jobs. Many of those contractor and subcontractor jobs are tied to fracking.

Cons

  • Because fracking involves pumping a concoction of water, sand and chemicals into the ground to break apart the bedrock, environmentalists and private landowners worry that those chemicals could reach, and poison, the groundwater.
  • Companies are not required to disclose the chemicals they use, or the formula of the mixture, in the process. That makes it difficult for local residents, or first responders, to prepare for an accident or emergency, and difficult for scientists to gauge the threat posed by the chemicals.
  • In Michigan, as many as 35 million gallons of freshwater are removed from nearby aquifers per frack well — the highest rate in the nation. The Anglers of the Au Sable, a Michigan environmental conservation group, and others, worry that this will deplete freshwater sources and potentially dry up rivers and streams that are key to Michigan’s ecological health.
  • Water for fracking is typically transported to well sites using heavy trucks, which turn pristine rural areas into industrial highways. The fracking, itself, is conducted day and night, causing both noise and light pollution for some nearby residents.
  • The stakes are rising. According to environmental groups, energy company Encana’s push for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to allow “resource play hubs” (multiple drilling wells from the same site) could exponentially deplete the local water supply.

Disclosure: John Bebow, CEO of the Center for Michigan, of which Bridge is a part, is second vice president of the conservation group Anglers of the Au Sable. Bebow had no role in the writing or editing of this article, nor in the writing or editing of Bridge’s coverage on fracking.

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Comments

EB
Tue, 05/20/2014 - 6:25am
According to http://www.watershedcouncil.org/learn/hydraulic-fracturing/concerns-tieh..., "Based on current activity in Michigan, an average of 7.5 million gallons of water are used to fracture each well." 7.5 million gallons of water is a whole lot less than the 35 million gallons of water reported in this article. Which number is correct? Is the water ever reused in other wells? If the water can be reused in other wells, then this is water not pumped from our fresh water supply. Why is surface water not used for these operations?
Tue, 05/20/2014 - 9:16am
EB, thanks for your comment. Here's the source of the 35 million figure: the Black River Conservation Association wells recently applied for in Kalkaska County propose over 35 million gallons per well. That would be more than any well in any other gas/oil play has used in the entire country.
Matt
Tue, 05/20/2014 - 10:43am
Saving Great lakes water? Another good reason to block the Chicago Canal in addition to stopping Obama's Carp from the great lakes. Beyond that I hope the folks whining about fracking aren't using fossil fuels to heat their homes and fuel their cars, it gets tedious.
Thomas
Tue, 05/20/2014 - 10:57am
One should never engage in an activity where the consequence of failure is intolerable. We don't do nuclear any longer because people finally came to understand that high-stakes technological failure is not a tolerable option. Fracking is an activity full of obfuscation and distraction, and another instance where the political skids have been greased to eliminate local opposition - and for good reason. If people fully understood and were fully informed as to the consequence of failure, and had the right to say "no," few would accept the trade-off of their access to clean drinking water for few temporary jobs and the right to thumb our nose at Putin.
Tue, 05/20/2014 - 12:53pm
The 35 million gallons in the article are what was requested in the permit application. Saying that 35 million gallons "are used" is misleading. The companies apply for that amount in the event of some emergency which allows them to use more water without the waiting required for the DEQ to process another application.
David Zeman
Tue, 05/20/2014 - 3:08pm
Hi John, I believe what it says that up to that amount can be used, not that that is the average.
Tue, 05/20/2014 - 3:47pm
David, I do not contend that the article says that 35 million is the average, but saying that 35 million gallons are removed per well is not accurate. The one well which used 21 million gallons is the one pointed to as the record in the country, and while that is a record, it is not 35 million. "In Michigan, as many as 35 million gallons of freshwater are removed from nearby aquifers per frack well" Not true.
Jarrett Skorup
Wed, 05/21/2014 - 10:53am
That amount of water sounds big an scary, but context (missing in the article) is important. A 2001 report from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality showed that the 622 irrigated golf courses in the state (65 percent of the total courses) used 36 million gallons of water per day: http://www.michiganturfgrass.org/uploads/3/1/6/9/3169125/golf_course_wit...As of 2006, the state said Michigan farms which irrigate 14 or more acres use approximately 223 million gallons of water per day: http://www.michigan.gov/documents/deq/deq-wd-wurp-agriculturereport06_20..."The amount of water used in fracking is trivial compared to the amount of water in the hydrologic cycle in Michigan, one of the water-rich states, by any reasonable measure even during typical drought," Donald Siegel, a professor of earth sciences at Syracuse University, said. "Obviously, if there is a long drought then water use needs to be considered not only for fracking but for all other uses too, agriculture to human consumption." http://www.michigancapitolconfidential.com/18998
Byron
Tue, 05/20/2014 - 10:15pm
There are no pros to fracking.
Wed, 05/21/2014 - 8:37am
Well thought out response.
Jarrett Skorup
Wed, 05/21/2014 - 10:54am
In the past six years, North Dakota has gone from 38th in per capita income to sixth. The state's 3.1 percent unemployment rate is the lowest in the nation and nearly a full point below second-place. And McDonald's franchises in the state are offering jobs up to $15 an hour with benefits, vacation and even a signing bonus. In Pennsylvania, 150,000 new hires have been added over the past three years in the natural gas industry and the average salary is about 30 percent higher than the state median.
Deb Muchmore
Wed, 05/21/2014 - 11:06am
The following statement from this story is not accurate: “Companies are not required to disclose the chemicals they use, or the formula of the mixture, in the process. That makes it difficult for local residents, or first responders, to prepare for an accident or emergency, and difficult for scientists to gauge the threat posed by the chemicals.” Michigan regulations require that Materials Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) containing the chemicals to be used in a hydraulic fracturing operation must be visibly posted at the well site for worker, regulator and first responder reference at all times. MSDS sheets are commonly used throughout industry, and regulated by OSHA, making the sheets and the information contained on them immediately understood by those who may need to reference them. On well sites where a hydraulic fracturing operation is planned, the information provided on a MSDS would be necessary in helping protect worker and environmental safety and instruct personnel on the proper handling of materials, should an accident occur. Companies also are required to provide the MSDS sheets for the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing operations to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which posts the information on the agency’s website for public transparency. The website Fracfocus.org also is a resource for the public to see the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing operations. Currently, Michigan regulations do not require companies to post to Fracfocus.org, though many companies do so voluntarily as a way of open disclosure. The Michigan DEQ is considering making chemical disclosure by companies on Fracfocus.org a requirement; the Michigan Oil And Gas Association supports this. Deb Muchmore, for the Michigan Oil And Gas Association