Interview: Michigan DEQ on fracking

May 10, 2012

Hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – is a method of drilling for natural gas.  Drillers use fracking to get to the gas that’s trapped in tight shale rock formations below the water table.  Fracking pumps a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into a well under high pressure to force open the rock and extract the gas. (You can check out this in-depth series by Michigan Watch's Lester Graham)

In Michigan, drillers have used the fracking method for more than 50 years and the state regulates the industry.  But they’ve been drilling vertical wells.

There’s been more interest lately in horizontal fracking – that’s where companies drill horizontally along the shale rock up to a mile or more.  That makes the well site much more productive.  It has lead to a boom in gas drilling and production and more jobs in some parts of the country.

But horizontal fracking also uses much more water. 

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality regulates fracking.

I spoke with Brad Wurfel, the Communications Director for the DEQ.  You can listen to the interview above.

Q: So – let’s start with water use.  With the more traditional, vertical, fracking we’re talking about tens of thousands of gallons of water – horizontal fracking uses millions of gallons.  This is water that’s contaminated and cannot be used again. What kinds of studies are being done to ensure water supplies are adequate for horizontal fracking in Michigan?

Brad Wurfel: With horizontal fracturing, they’re tens of thousands of feet down under the ground. So it does require more water, but it also requires fewer wells. Every user who uses a lot of water has to register that use as part of their permitting process.  And if it looks like the water withdrawal proposal is going to harm the environment, that permit gets denied.  Or the company gets sent back to the drawing board to find a new way.

Q: What happens to the contaminated fracking fluid when it comes back out of the well?

A: It’s handled very carefully because in other states where the regulation hasn’t been as good, that’s been one of the key problems with hydraulic fracturing.  The amount of chemical that’s in that water is really small – it’s one half of one percent.  We require that operators use steel tanks to contain it and that it’s sent to a deep injection well for disposal.

Q: A recent article in the Battle Creek Enquirer quoted MDEQ geologist Michael Shelton, who said that 6.7 million gallons of water can be used in a single fracking well.  So – one half of one percent of 6 million gallons is still 30,000 gallons of chemicals.

A: Well, when you figure the dilution, it’s not an eminent threat to the environment. That said, when you combine it with the saline that comes back up, it does make it something that we want to handle very carefully, and we do.

Q: A 2011 Congressional report found these chemicals can range from things considered harmless like salt and citric acid to chemicals that can pose serious health risks.  Things like benzene, formaldehyde and lead.   But that report also found that many of the chemicals or the chemical mixes were listed as trade secrets. What does the DEQ require companies to disclose about the chemicals they use? 

A: We get Material Safety Data Sheets, and in the event there was ever a problem with a hydraulic fracture in the state of Michigan, every component used and its percentage would be disclosed immediately to emergency responders.  We haven’t ever had a situation where we’ve needed to use it.  That said, most of what’s in hydraulic fractures is under trade secret for the mix, not the actual chemicals.

Q: But companies can still protect the mixes of chemicals they consider trade secret, right?

A: That’s correct.

Q: So, if you suspect there’s water contamination at a well site, how will you know what chemicals to look for?

A: Well, those chemicals would be... present in the environment.  And we could obviously look at what was used there and see if it was evident in say, a water supply.  That’s a pretty big hypothetical.  We’ve been hearing a lot from folks who’ve got fears about what might happen.  And I can’t speak to what might happen.  I can speak to the fact that in 50 years and 12,000 wells around the state, we’ve never had to respond to an environmental emergency with hydraulic fracturing. It’s been done safely.