New rules for fracking disclosure in Michigan

Speaking before a packed room in Lake Leelanau early last month, environmental consultant Chris Grobbel warned Leelanau County residents of an impending threat. “Fracking is coming,” Grobbel told the crowd. “The question is how you prepare for it.”

The facts, figures and narrative presented by Grobbel in his 45-minute slideshow were dizzying, and left many in the overflow crowd alarmed at the prospect of water extraction and drilling for natural gas in their backyard, though no hydraulic fracturing appears imminent in beautiful, and wealthy, Leelanau County.

In Grobbel’s view, state agencies charged with protecting Michigan’s environment – the Department of Natural Resources and Department of Environmental Quality – are all but asleep at the wheel. “In my opinion, they’ve been pretty easy on the regulated community,” said Grobbel, who once worked at DEQ.

It’s a criticism the DEQ hoped to put to rest when, later in April, the environmental agency released new disclosure rules on hydraulic fracturing – the agency’s first revision since 2011. The public will have an opportunity this summer to comment on the rules. Some in the environmental community have called the new industry requirements a step in the right direction. Others, including Grobbel, say the guidelines fall short of what’s necessary to prevent contamination of drinking water near wells and other environmental risks.

Hydraulic fracturing is a drilling process in which large amounts of water, sand and chemicals are injected deep into wells at high pressure to extract natural gas deposits trapped in the shale.

The new DEQ disclosure rules are limited to high-volume fracking – operations involving more than 100,000 gallons of water – rather than low-volume fracking. Michigan currently has 10 high-volume oil and gas fracking wells, with 27 permits pending.

Among other things, the new DEQ rules require energy companies to:

  • Test baseline water wells within a quarter mile of a fracking site before drilling begins. This will make it easier to determine liability if water near the operation is contaminated.
  • Disclose the types and volume of chemicals they inject into the ground, and post them on the publicly accessible nationwide chemical disclosure registry, Companies must post the chemicals within 30 days after drilling, but not before.
  • Notify DEQ 48 hours before they start a high-volume fracking operation.
  • Use a state evaluation tool called the Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool to monitor water levels near fracking operations in Michigan.

“A lot of these things were already being done by industry,” says Harold Fitch, chief of DEQ’s Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals (OOGM). “We just codified the rules.”

Doug Hock, a spokesman for Encana, one of the most active energy companies in Michigan, confirmed that the rules pose few hurdles to his company. “The new rules deal with many of the procedures which Encana is already using voluntarily in Michigan such as baseline water testing and disclosure of hydraulic fracturing chemicals via FracFocus,” Hock wrote in an email. “These are industry best practices and have become requirements in other jurisdictions where we operate such as Wyoming and Colorado. The consultation with the DEQ on high-volume fracks is also a practice we support.”

For some, questions remain

James Clift, policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council, laments that the DEQ’s rules don’t cover smaller fracking operations as well. He recently fielded concern from residents in Scio Township, near Ann Arbor, about low-volume fracking operations near Hillsdale.

“It’s a step forward, but we still don’t think they have the regulation at a level commensurate with the risk posed by these new operations,” says Clift. “Why don’t we include these rules for smaller operations as well?”

Dave Hyndman, a leading hydrologist, professor and chair of Michigan State University’s Department of Geological Sciences, agrees. “All fracking operations should be appropriately regulated to minimize the risk of contamination,” he says.

Some environmentalists say they worry that baseline water well tests conducted before a well is drilled are inadequate because they will only test aquifer levels within a quarter mile of the drill site, and only before the operation begins.

“Additional surface water quality, stream level and flow data (before, during and after fracking operations) should be added to the monitoring requirements,” Hyndman said.

Environmentalists say they are also concerned by DEQ’s proposed 30-day chemical disclosure delay.

“It is not clear why there is a delay period in this reporting,” says Hyndman. “It would be prudent to disclose this information in advance of the fracking operation.”

The DEQ’s Fitch defended the agency’s chemical disclosure rule as necessary for industry.

“Some would like to see advanced disclosure,” Fitch said. “But sometimes the companies don’t know exactly which chemicals they’ll use, or what volumes they’ll use, until they drill, and they have to switch gears during the operation.”

Fitch has also noted that, for all the concern about hydraulic fracturing, Michigan has had a solid record in protecting the environment from fracking contamination.

“I think we have a rule package here that addresses the major issues,” Fitch said. “I hope it gives people a comfort level that they’ll have greater access to information.”

For Grobbel, a veteran of the DEQ under the Democratic administration of Gov. James Blanchard in the 1980s, the proposed fracking rules are another example of the agency pandering to industry under Gov. Rick Snyder.

In the 1980s, Grobbel and his colleagues were dubbed “the cowboys” by General Motors and Dow Chemical for aggressively enforcing toxic waste cleanups. As Grobbel tells it, environmental enforcement was stopped under Gov. Engler, and the will to regulate did not pick up under the Granholm administration. “Our best Governor on the environment was Bill Milliken,” he says.

At his Leelanau County presentation in April, Grobbel cited a Michigan Auditor General’s report last September critical of Fitch’s office at DEQ. The report cited instances of incomplete inspections at well sites, failure to “notify the well’s responsible party of violations,” and a failure in some cases to to ensure companies “corrected the violations.”

Rick Henderson, field operations chief at the DEQ, defended the agency’s performance. “I think we have an excellent track record here in Michigan,” Henderson said. “We regulate oil and gas activity from beginning to end, cradle to grave. I’m very confident that it’s not hurting water supplies.”

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Arthur Thomas
Thu, 05/22/2014 - 8:44am
Although the proposed regulations may sound reasonable and helpful, the truth is that we are just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, if we allow fracking to proceed at all. The new regulations will not be followed or enforced, and even if they were, we would still be killing the planet as fast as possible in many different ways. If the fossil fuel industries get their way, not a single molecule of gas, oil, or coal will be left in the ground, and the planet will become unable to support human life. We have to focus on renewable energy RIGHT NOW, and ban the hideous technology of fracking,.
Bruce McFee
Thu, 05/22/2014 - 8:47am
Arthur, I'm waiting to hear about that solution to flying a jet airplane on renewable energy.
Wed, 05/28/2014 - 2:51pm
Bruce, Here's a cool one that flies on renewable energy for up to 96 hours per flight. The US military, Boeing, and Ford Motor Company designed and built this aircraft. It can be run on water which is the up and coming renewable energy (you've probably heard of water - I would not be surprised if you've even drank a glass or two). Hydrogen is the active ingredient in coal, oil, and natural gas. Hydrogen can also be found in water (H2O). Soon, all cars, trucks, homes, businesses, and yes airplanes will run on water.
Richard T. Desv...
Wed, 07/30/2014 - 3:05pm
I'm not sure we were talking about flying a jet plane on renewable energy. I do believe we were taking about the facilitation of an inherently flawed technology, HVHF, and doing so in Michigan despite the disastrous negative impacts it has had in other states and places. We are talking about polluted air that caused a 6-fold increase in stillbirths in Utah. We are taking about the permanent poisoning of our aquifers. We are talking asthma, leukemia, cancer, DNA and endocrine disruption, birth defects, still births and genetic damage that could be passed on through the generations. So now is clearly not the time for sophistry.
Mon, 05/26/2014 - 8:42am
I'm not seeing any environmentalists giving up their cars, cell phones, computers, lights, heat, hot showers, etc. Until an effective and efficient means of green energy is developed, fracking is here to stay. Environmentalists: instead of fighting it why not put your money and energy into making sure its done properly.
Chuck Fellows
Thu, 05/22/2014 - 9:01am
The fossil fuel industry has effectively banned the real regulatory horsepower from participating in this environmental insult, the Federal Government. "Insult" in the context that the environment will be impacted. That's a fact. This effort is an attempt to regulate the up front process and fails to address the longer term and potentially more serious problem of high pressure deep well injection sites used to dispose of the toxic soup deemed "non toxic" due to the prohibition on federal regulation. We could keep it simple and require that all organizations deriving revenue from these types of operations purchase insurance to cover the total lifetime cost of the clean up when the true consequences to human and environmental health are discovered in the future. No insurance company would touch that one. Why? They know better. Yet the general public is required to bear the whole risk and the horrendous cost in life and public treasure. Tell me again how expensive alternative sources of energy are! Remember, we used to think that mercury and DDT were safe . . .
Thu, 05/22/2014 - 9:14am
Why do we need fracking in Michigan now? Nationwide there is more natural gas coming out of the ground than the companies can deal, its being BURNED at the wellhead. We are nuts!
Doug Niergarth
Thu, 05/22/2014 - 10:38am
We have the majority of the worlds fresh water flowing and resting outside our collective doors. It is a treasure to be guarded zealously. Fracking contains a risk as shown over and over that unseen faults in the rock allow contaminants to seep up to the water table in an unforeseen manner. What is at risk here is our only valuable natural resource we have. The same conglomerate companies that are profiting off of our resource will be quick to distill the polluted water and sell it back to us when the time comes but what about our precious streams. What happens when those become a stinking, polluted quagmire? I suppose we'll have no issue when those same companies profit from paving them over and sealing the stink off for us. blufox is right, we are nuts.
Thu, 05/22/2014 - 12:10pm
Fracking has been done safely in Michigan for over 20 years, with no recorded problems. It has been done in Texas for over 50 years, also with no recorded problems. The shale in Michigan holds the promise of many thousands of jobs. The reality is that the world needs natural gas for hundreds of critical industrial, medical, and agricultural applications. As for the renewable energy argument, I am all for renewable and SUSTAINABLE energy. The problem with current renewable energy technology is that, for the most part, it is not yet sustainable. I agree that fracking must be done with total transparency in order to protect public health, but can we please look at the science, and refrain from ideology that is holding back Michigan's economic growth?
Thu, 05/22/2014 - 11:34pm
Robin, You are dead wrong about "no recorded problems" and your children may as well be dead, if this crazy race to extract and use oil and gas for energy continues at its current pace.
Fri, 05/23/2014 - 11:48am
Can you point me to where there are documented environmental problems in Michigan?
Wed, 07/30/2014 - 2:56pm
Records were kept until 1995 at which time mysteriously they no longer had to be kept. This is what accounts for the lack of transparency. Chris Groebbel and a lot of people in Mi can attest to accidents but according to the industry and the gov't that would be considered anecdotal. Gotcha again. The EPA studies are stopped. Another gotcha. The deck is stacked against citizens who want to stop this which I know makes you feel pretty smug.
Chuck Fellows
Mon, 05/26/2014 - 8:29am
No reported problems since there are no requirements to report!
Al Connor
Thu, 05/22/2014 - 2:53pm
Robin, Renewable energy (Wind. Solar, small head hydro, cellulosic bio fuels) are the only sources that are sustainable. The fact that fossil fuels are neither ecologically and economically unsustainable is a no brainer. They are finite in supply and the Earth cannot provide them for ever. Beside that they do a lot of ecological damage that cannot be mitigated.
Fri, 05/23/2014 - 11:51am
When I mentioned sustainablity, I was refering to economic sustainablity.
Chuck Fellows
Mon, 05/26/2014 - 8:31am
Hopefully you understand that burning carbon based substances to produce energy is not sustainable.
Wed, 07/30/2014 - 3:06pm
Yes. Our economy could prosper if we had alternative energy. The money that is being put into the infrastructure for gas and oil could be put into infrastructure for alternative energy. This is being done in other countries and they are prospering. It's important to think of the long-term consequences of this extreme energy and how it will effect us. Water, air, health, safety, and quality of life are all at risk. The longer we depend on the fossil fuel industry the longer it will take for us to be on the road we need to be on cleaner forms of energy. None of this is a surprise really since we have been warned of the consequences of our consumption of fossil fuels since the 1970's.
Wed, 07/30/2014 - 3:47pm
Robin, As a current resident of the Western Slope in Colorado, where fracking is everywhere, I can assure you that the waste-water injection wells will for a fact contaminate the aquifers of Michigan. My heart hurts for my homeland. The value of our watershed significantly outweighs the value of any gas that may lie in the shale basins. Please understand that the fracking companies are criminal and will dump radioactive fracking waste on roads, in rivers, and wherever they damn well please. I am speaking to you from someone who lives in a state with over 52,000 active wells. My ears ring daily, I have rashes and nosebleeds, and am planning to move from this beautiful state because of exposure to toxic fumes.
Mon, 05/26/2014 - 3:00pm
Al, wind and solar are good but not efficient. When the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine these systems don't work. So, you have to have a back up energy system and that is where fossil fuel comes in. Can you imagine depending on solar and wind and then when they don't work suddenly the lights go off, your furnace doesn't work, your computer goes dead, traffic lights don't work, your can't recharge your batteries, etc., etc., Personally, I like the idea of green energy but because its still in its infant stage I don't think you and I will see it fully developed in our life time. We still need fossil fuel.
Mon, 05/26/2014 - 3:04pm
Al; wind and solar are good but not efficient. When the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine these systems don't work. Even back up battery systems don't last long; so, you have to have a back up energy system and that is where fossil fuel comes in. Can you imagine depending on solar and wind and then when they don't work suddenly the lights go off, your furnace doesn't work, your computer goes dead, traffic lights don't work, your can't recharge your batteries, a doctor in the middle of a surgery finds out his equipment won't work, etc., etc., Personally, I like the idea of green energy but because its still in its infant stage I don't think you and I will see it fully developed in our life time. We still need fossil fuel.
Wed, 05/28/2014 - 5:24pm
As a past employee of Dowell in Kalkaska in the 70s and 80s we were fracking wells then with sand and water and hydrochloric acid with no accidents. As far as you thinking the rig is burning natural gas at the site is completely wrong. What you are seeing is the burning of hydrogen sulfide gas which is poison gas.