Fracking Presentation Debunks Industry Arguments

By Crystal A. Proxmire

Professional well-driller Joe Curry of Holly has been speaking out against the expansion of fracking in Michigan. Among his presentations was one given in Ferndale Apr. 23 at the request of Oakland County Water Resource Officer Jim Nash, who hopes to educate residents about the risks.

Fracking is the process of drilling into the earth and using gas, water or foam to expand cracks in the shale to force natural gas to the surface. Slickwater horizontal fracturing uses the traditional fracking process but super-sized - with wells drilled horizontally into the shaleplate and expanding miles out, and with a newly-developed, chemical-laden "slickwater" used as the fluid.

Curry went through industry arguments about fracking, refuting them one-by-one, often with DEQ [Department of Environmental Quality] documentation. DEQ representative Hal Fitch came to a discussion with Curry previously in West Bloomfield Township, but has declined taking part in future forums with Curry. Instead the DEQ will have their own town hall Apr. 30 at the MSU Management Education Center, 811 W. Square Lake Road in Troy.

Argument #1 - We've been fracking in Michigan for over 50 years

Fracking itself has been in Michigan since 1950. However the new kind of fracking, "slickwater horizontal fracturing," is a much more recent development. According to the DEQ, there are 12,000 wells in Michigan. Traditionally gas companies have drilled into the Antrim Shale Plate, which is 1,200-2,000 feet down. The wells have been vertical, and have used gel, air, foam and water to push the gas to the surface.

Slickwater horizontal fracturing did not begin in Michigan until 2010. These wells go much further into the ground, reaching the Collingwoods shale plate 12,000-12,500 feet down. Additionally the wells are drilled horizontally through that layer for another 10,000 to 12,000 feet.

There are only 12 such wells in Michigan. Two of those wells have been abandoned and two were considered failures. Permits have been issued to allow for more.

Argument #2 - There is no evidence of fracking contaminating water in Michigan

There are two different ways to look at this argument. The first is to consider how new slickwater horizontal fracturing is to the state, and how narrowly the DEQ identifies the source of contamination. Curry said, for example, that if someone's well water becomes contaminated, there is no way to prove where that contamination came from unless baseline testing was done beforehand to prove that the water was clean before fracking began.

Studies in other states, where slickwater horizontal fracturing is more common, show a correlation between drilling operations and groundwater contamination. One example given is the Duke University study that shows 17 times more methane in drinking water wells near such fracking sites. http://www.nicholas.duke.edu/hydrofracking/methane-levels-17-times-higher-in-water-wells-near-hydrofracking-sites Examples of contaminated wells are readily searchable online, including a story done by Time.com about a woman in Pennsylvania whose water is flammable due to methane contamination. http://www.time.com/time/video/player/0,32068,902909981001_2065158,00.html.

The Michigan Oil & Gas Producers Education Foundation brochure about fracking questions and answers addresses the concern of flammable drinking water, by saying that the methane is natural. http://www.greatlakesenergyforum.com/uploads/FAQ_HydraulicFracturing_Mich_MOGEF2.pdf.

Another key way that water is contaminated is that water is taken from the natural environment and mixed with chemicals that permanently destroy the water. Used fracking water does not go back into nature; it must be stored in deep wells, never to be used again.

"When you use millions of gallons of the aquifer for farming, crops, heat treating plants or even bottled water companies, this waster never leaves our hydraulic cycle. The same water has been reused for thousands of years. The difference in slickwater horizontal hydraulic fracturing is this process does not use the water, it destroys it," Curry said.

The amount of water is also unprecedented. As evidenced by permits filed with the DEQ, drilling operations in Michigan use 3-4 times the national average for water because these new wells are significantly deeper.

Curry sited an Encana drilling company application for five wells off one pad in Kalkaska County. Their usage was documented at 132,300,000 gallons of water. "This is more water from a single watershed from a single well pad than all 12,000 Antrim wells cumulatively used over 60 years of Antrim drilling," he said. On average a traditional vertical well used 50,000 gallons, versus the 21,000,000 gallon average of slickwater horizontal hydraulic fracturing wells.

Argument #3 - Fracking is well-regulated

While there are regulations to be followed, fracking companies are exempt from key provisions of many laws set up to protect the environment, including the Safe Water Drinking Act, the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Superfund Law, National Environmental Policy Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Fracking fluid is considered a "trade secret," so the public and regulators are not able to know what chemicals are being used.

Additionally, Curry questioned whether the DEQ is adequately staffed to regulate existing wells, let alone new more complicated ones. According to the DEQ there are 18,000 active wells. The Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals has a staff of 55 people, with only 22 being area geologists. "The Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals would have to visit three wells a day to observe an active well site one time per year," Curry said. Additionally, as confirmed by Fitch at the previous meeting, the OOGM is funded by royalties from the gas extractions. In other words, their funding is based not on protecting the public, but on how profitable the drilling companies are.

Curry also showed photos of drilling and extraction sites in Michigan, where toxic water and mud was being stored in open pits, not in sealed containers as is often claimed.

Argument #4 - "We're not fracking"

Curry said that when drilling companies come to talk to the public, they will sometimes say that they are not planning on fracking. This claim is simply a technicality, he said. The drilling companies are not the ones who do the fracking. They simply apply for the permits and drill the wells. The project is then handed off to an extraction company. The extraction company does the fracking on the site. The Michigan Oil & Gas Producers Education Foundation is careful to point out on their brochure that "Hydraulic fracturing is not a drilling method. After a well has been drilled, hydraulic fracturing involves pumping water, sand, and a small amount of additives down the well under controlled pressure." http://www.greatlakesenergyforum.com/uploads/FAQ_HydraulicFracturing_Mich_MOGEF2.pdf.

Other Considerations

Other consequences of fracking include increased wear and tear on roads from increased truck traffic, noise, smells, and aesthetics. For example, he said, there are now two well permits issued for inside Indian Springs Metro Park near Waterford, which was intended to be a recreational area for the public.

Increased risk of earthquakes near slickwater horizontal hydraulic fracturing sites is another concern. Curry used the example of quakes that have been occurring in Forth Worth Texas after a major fracking operation there. http://stateimpact.npr.org/texas/2013/01/22/texas-is-shaking-again-3-0-quake-strikes-near-airport/.

Nash also expressed concern for the overall ecosystem, suggesting that Michiganders look to solar and wind technologies as a longer-term solution to energy needs.

Although the DEQ declined to participate in the forum, the points made at the previous forum were covered in Curry's presentation. To learn more about where wells are located in Michigan, visit http://respectmyplanet.org. For the gas and oil industry perspective see http://www.greatlakesenergyforum.com/topics/hydraulic-fracturing.


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