The Fracking in Michigan Conference, hosted December 3rd by WMEAC and a number of partner organizations, brought experts with backgrounds in a variety of related fields to provide insight and information on the status of the fracking industry, and Michigan’s fracking policy. The conference was an important moment for activists and leaders to talk about controversial fracking issues. Over 120 attendees joined the conversation and encouraged the panelists to address these issues head-on.
The conference was preceded the evening before with Issues and Ale, in coordination with Michigan Radio. Lester Graham, Senior Editor and Correspondent for Michigan Radio, led a fiery discussion, packing the upper deck of the Lansing HopCat with over 70 interested community members.
Fracking in Michigan Conference Highlights
The conference focused on High Volume Horizontal Fracturing Activity (HVFA), a specific type of fracking. Michigan has defined HVFA as any fracturing activity that involves more than 100,000 gallons of fluid. There are currently 18 HVFA wells in Michigan some of these wells use 21 million gallons of water; there have been proposed wells that would require 35 million gallons of water. The oil and gas industry has received limited financial returns from these wells, so while the price of natural gas remains low they do not anticipate a significant increase in the number of HVFA wells in Michigan. At the moment, the industry is on pause. However, when the price of natural gas rises, drilling high volume wells in Michigan will begin to look more attractive and we may see a burst of HVFA.
At the conference Mark Snow of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) stated that the current proposed rules are undergoing a substantive update to address concerns raised in a large number of public comments submitted to the MDEQ. The MDEQ is currently undergoing a process to update the rules that govern the fracking industry.
Roland Zullo, research scientist with the University of Michigan, who participated on the panel discussing the economics of fracking spoke on the numbers of jobs that the fracking industry brings to Michigan. Dr. Zullo explained that there are roughly 600 permanent jobs in Michigan pertaining to oil and gas extraction. These 600 jobs will remain in Michigan regardless of whether there are additional wells drilled. There are an additional 2,200 temporary jobs on mining crews, relating to the establishment of drilling rigs. If oil and gas exploration stopped in Michigan, these jobs which are not as high paying would no longer exist.
A particular topic discussed was the MDEQ Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool which “estimates the likely impact of a water withdrawal on nearby streams and rivers. Use of the WWAT is required of anyone proposing to make a new or increased large quantity withdrawal from the waters of the state, including all groundwater and surface water sources, prior to beginning the withdrawal.” Former Michigan Senator Patty Birkholz highlighted a point that was met with widespread agreement: the WWAT is an excellent tool for ensuring that water intensive projects don’t adversely affect the nearby ground and surface water, but the MDEQ currently lacks the resources to perform necessary updates and reach it’s full potential.
Other Panelists discussed other important areas for improvement in Michigan’s fracking regulation. David Lusch, Distinguished Research Specialist on ground and surface water resources at MSU spoke on the incomplete nature of Michigan’s baseline testing of wells and water bodies. Dr. Lusch explained that without thorough baseline testing it is impossible to accurately measure a change in the flow volume of a stream. James Clift discussed the usage of tracers in fracking fluid. Tracers attach a unique company fingerprint to the fracking fluid that could be used to identify the source of the fluid in case of a leak or a spill.
John Callewaert, Integrated Assessment Center Director at the University of Michigan Graham Sustainability Institute, spoke on The Institute’s Fracking in Michigan report which is currently in progress. The report is a comprehensive, collaborative document that incorporates the input of experts in the fields of geology, law, technology, economics, atmospheric science, and environmental health to produce seven technical reports and a set of policy options for legislative consideration. The anticipated release date of the report is April-June of 2015.
As a whole the conference showed Michigan’s fracking policies are middle of road when compared with other states, and thus far we have avoided any major industry accidents. However, many activists pressed that it is important that Michigan reevaluate policies surrounding the fracking industry in anticipation of an increase of drilling and gas exploration.