Environment
9:00 am
Thu April 26, 2012

Lawmakers debate future of "fracking" in Michigan

Hydraulic fracturing is getting some attention this week in Lansing.  You’ve probably heard it called fracking.  It’s 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.

In Michigan, drillers have used the fracking method for more than 50 years and the state regulates the industry. 

But what’s new... is that drillers want to turn their drills and dig horizontally along the shale rock.  That makes the well site much more productive.  But it also uses a larger amount of chemicals and much more water - anywhere from a few million gallons of water to as much as eight million gallons of water per well.  After it’s used, that water is usually disposed of in deep injection wells.

Right now in Michigan, there are two experimental wells that are using the horizontal fracking method.

This week the Michigan House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Natural Gas put out a report encouraging more natural gas production in the state.

Governor Rick Snyder held an online town hall yesterday, and he pointed out that there are thousands of wells in Michigan that have been fracked – using the traditional method.

"So I don’t foresee us having major issues over fracking. There are some other states that have had major problems because I don’t believe they have the same regulatory environment and the same business environment to make sure it was being done as well."

The governor and many Republicans say more natural gas drilling in the state will be good for the economy.

One of the reasons fracking has been controversial is that drillers use a variety of chemicals.  There are more than 500 kinds of chemicals in use in various formulas.   

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 were listed as trade secrets and did not have to be revealed. (You can learn more from this ProPublica site: What the Frack is in That Water?)

In Michigan, last year the state Supervisor of Wells issued new permitting instructions for drillers. Drillers will have to give the state Department of Environmental Quality safety information about the chemicals they’re using – but they do not have to report anything that’s considered a trade secret. 

This week, Democrats in the state House are discussing a package of bills that would add some additional restrictions to fracking.

Rick Pluta is the State Capitol Bureau Chief for the Michigan Public Radio Network.  He's been following the discussion on fracking in Lansing this week.  You can listen to our conversation above. Here's an excerpt:

Pluta: Democrats want a moratorium; it would probably last for a couple of years while some state regulatory agencies conduct a study on the environmental impact of fracking. State Representative Aric Nesbitt is the Republican chair of the House Subcommittee on Natural Gas. He opposes any moratorium on fracking.

 

'We’re hanging ourselves out to dry if we think we can remain competitive by shutting off a supply of energy here in Michigan.'

Representative Lisa Brown is a Democrat from West Bloomfield in Oakland County. She says the legislation that Democrats are calling for allows for public comment – on the whether a permit that would allow fracking is given to a driller.

'But it also protects trade secrets as well.  And along with another bill I introduced months ago this would actually help the companies doing the fracking to say here’s the list of chemicals we’ve used. If there is a problem, if there is a contamination somewhere, we didn’t use that chemical. It didn’t come from us.'"