When the Great Lakes water levels fell a few years ago, people began thinking more about how much water we use. Now, this new kind of drilling, called horizontal hydraulic fracturing, again is causing concern about how we use water.
Water already has been used for vertical hydraulic fracturing in thousands of gas wells in Michigan. It takes about 50,000 gallons to drill each well and fracture shale layers underground to release the natural gas.
Horizontal fracturing, also called horizontal fracking, uses a hundred times more water.
Animation of Horizontal Hydraulic Fracturing (produced by Chesapeake Energy )
Doug Houck is spokesman for EnCana Corporation, the Canadian gas company that's drilling exploratory wells in Michigan using horizontal fracking.
"We will be using about, we estimate probably in the range of four to five million gallons of water per well, which is a large quantity. However, when you look at it in comparison to other uses, it's not an enormous amount," says Houck.
Actually, the first well EnCana drilled used about 5.5 million gallons of water.
Hal Fitch is with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment . He's the regulator with oversight of this new method of drilling and the millions of gallons of water it uses.
"To put it in perspective, five million gallons is about what eight to ten acres of corn uses in a growing season. Nevertheless, I mean, we're concerned about impacts on adjacent water bodies, wetlands, streams, lakes, residential water wells even," says Fitch.
There is a difference between the water used for horizontal fracking and growing corn. The water used by corn doesn't go away. It's re-used by the system. Because of chemicals added to the water used for the drilling in horizontal fracking, that water can never be used for anything else.
Chris Grobbel is an environmental consultant. He says Michigan law says the state must first determine whether using all that water will damage supplies.
"And you don't, you know, say Oops, we have a problem. We dried up somebody's well. Let's make a change.' I think you need to know in advance and prevent that kind of thing," says Grobbel.
At this point, no one knows if horizontal fracking for deep gas wells will take off in Michigan as it has in states such as Pennsylvania and Wyoming. There are 10,000 shallower wells in Michigan, so it's conceivable that thousands of deep horizontal hydraulic fracturing wells could be drilled.
Environmental groups are getting concerned. Hugh McDiarmid is with the Michigan Environmental Council. He says if all that water is mixed with chemicals, and then never used again because it's trucked away and disposed of like so much hazardous waste. That's a problem.
"We are blessed with the world's greatest fresh water resource in Michigan and with that blessing comes our role to become good stewards of that water. And, you know, that includes making sure that we're not desecrating it," says McDiarmid.
And destroying a renewable resource, water, to extract a non-renewable resource, natural gas just to burn it for energy, seems a little short-sighted to the environmentalists.
ProPublica's vast coverage of horizontal fracking
Michigan DNRE paper on horizontal fracking (pdf)
A second Michigan DNRE paper on horizontal fracking (pdf)
Michigan Environmental Council on Fracking
Michigan Association of Professional Landmen
Michigan Oil and Gas Association