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, FracFocus.org. 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.”