Keeping an eye on natural gas drilling rigs: Part 4

Sep 30, 2010

A regulatory agency in Michigan says it can handle a new type of drilling for natural gas. That's what regulators in other states said before complaints about water contamination and leaking gas started coming in.

This new type of drilling is called horizontal hydraulic fracturing. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has been used for decades in vertical well drilling. This horizontal fracking goes down and then the drilling apparatus bends 90 degrees and continues to drill horizontally for a mile or more.

In Pennsylvania, New York, Wyoming, Colorado and other states there have been complaints about water contamination and gas leaking into water sources and homes after horizontal fracking. No one is certain that horizontal fracking is responsible, but it's raised some concerns.

Michigan regulators say they're ready for horizontal fracking, if energy companies decide to exploit a new, deeper source of natural gas in northern lower Michigan. 

Hal Fitch is the regulator in charge of drilling at the Department of Natural Resources and Environment.

"I feel confident we can protect the environment during that process. I won't say there couldn't be accidents. There are accidents in anything you do out there, but I think we've got a pretty good handle on that. We've got good well construction criteria. We've got controls on the hydraulic fracturing process itself. We've got people out there monitoring it right from cradle to grave," says Fitch. 

Fitch says he's ready to stake his reputation on Michigan having the regulations in place to handle horizontal fracking.

"If I didn't feel we could manage this properly, I'd be the first one to say we need to ramp up our regulations, we need to change things, we need to slow things down or something like that. I think we've got the means to manage it properly," says Fitch.

"Those are the assurances that are always made," says Chris Grobbel, an environmental consultant who is concerned about Michigan's easy embrace of horizontal fracking by energy companies snapping up leases in the state.

"I have spent a career and hundreds of others have in the state of Michigan cleaning up things that were never going to release, never going to have a problem, and from a public policy perspective, you know, this Hey, nothing is going to go wrong; trust us,' notion, that doesn't hold water any longer in Michigan," says Grobbel.

The confident nature of the people regulating the industry is not unique to Michigan. Abrahm Lustgarten is an investigative reporter for ProPublica,. He's covered horizontal fracking and he's heard these kinds of assurances before from regulators.

"Well, I can tell you that's what I heard from Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection and it's what I heard from both New York regulators and Colorado regulators as well. In each of those cases as time has passed those state regulators have found themselves pressed, to say the least, and scrambling to keep up."

Since those assurances, some drinking water wells mysteriously have been contaminated with chemicals unique to the fracking process. In some states, natural gas was found in water sources. No one has been able to definitively say it's the fault of horizontal fracking, but people are suspicious.

New York placed a moratorium on drilling. Most of the states are considering new regulations on horizontal fracking to try to limit the risks to public health and the environment. Abrahm Lustgarten says the drilling industry itself knows what it could do to reduce the risks.

"There are a great number of what the industry calls best practices,' best management practices for drilling for natural gas that can substantially cut down on the amount of environmental risk. In other words, it seems possible to drill much more safely than most of the energy companies across the United States choose to operate."

But federal exemptions and lax state regulations have allowed energy companies to drill using far less strict practices. Environmentalists are concerned that's exactly what's going to happen in Michigan. State regulators say Michigan has stricter regulations than other states and they feel nothing more is needed.

More Resources
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

Encana Corporation
Michigan Oil and Gas Association