There has been a curious debate within the regional environmental community recently on how to approach hydraulic fracturing, the natural gas extraction technique commonly known as fracking. Passionate groups of grassroots activists are advocating for a ban on the practice in Michigan, or at least a very specific type, while others are calling for improved regulations – with some calling for a moratorium on at least the aforementioned technique, high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, so that research can be conducted to determine the extent of the threat to Michigan’s natural resources, and what a robust and appropriate regulatory environment might look like, assuming that is possible.
Made famous recently by the documentary Gasland and a series of news reports linking it to environmental disasters, fracking has proven one of the most complicated environmental issues in the state today. While the issue seems new, a more limited version of the practice, has been around for many years. A mixture of water, chemicals, and sand are injected into well pipes to create fractures in rock formations through which natural gas can flow for collection. When the general public talks about fracking, they are generally referring to this practice, which has been the source of terrifying environmental degradation in other parts of the country, but has been used relatively safely in Michigan, as far anyone knows. Of the several thousand wells drilled, there have been few major incidents.
High-volume horizontal fracturing is a novel approach now found in only a handful of wells in Michigan. Its potential to open up new natural gas supplies, however, has created a run on mineral leases in the state, with energy companies and speculators snapping up exploration rights at unprecedented rates. The basic concept is that the well pipe bends at a certain point, drilling horizontal, tapping into many more fissures of natural gas than could possibly be accessed through a vertical well. Deposits once deemed unpractical to access become lucrative.
When the environmental community talks about fracking, it may or may not be referring to hydraulic fracturing in general or horizontal hydraulic fracturing specifically. This can be an important distinction. Some of the regulatory discussions apply to the more inclusive definition, while others do not. As a for instance, the Committee to Ban Fracking in Michigan and the grassroots group Ban Michigan Fracking are currently circulating petitions to ban horizontal hydraulic fracturing, an effort that would not increase regulations on other types of fracking, and can easily be confused with the much more exhaustive fracking ban recently enacted in Vermont. The group claims that if it group gathers enough signatures by election day in November, the issue will appear on the ballot in 2014.
The majority of environmental groups active in the state have not endorsed a ban. Clean Water Action, Sierra Club Michigan and WMEAC are all advocating for a moratorium. This position is most clearly recognized through support of House Bill 5150, which prohibits the state from issuing permits for horizontal wells and wells located within the Utica or Collingwood Shales, the deep formation in northern Michigan that has led to rampant growth in natural gas exploration in Michigan. The moratorium does not include conventional wells in the established Antrim formation that accounts for 74% of natural gas drilling in the state. Other major environmental groups, such as the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, and the Michigan Environmental Council do not support a moratorium; they are instead focused on improving protections of the practice.
There are two sister bills, HB 5149 and HB 5151, that increase regulations on fracking in general, requiring wells to use the Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool and providing the framework for the research and oversight necessary to properly regulate the industry. Although the three-bill package has not gotten much traction from legislators since being introduced late last year, certain tenets of the bills, including the use of the WWAT, have been adopted by state regulators.
Notably, one group, Food and Water Watch, has endorsed both a national ban and the Michigan bills, suggesting that there isn’t as big a difference between the positions as some might suggest.
This is a tricky issue. The State of Michigan is supportive of hydraulic fracturing and firmly believes that its regulatory structure is a national model for effective, protective regulation. The Republican-controlled legislature would have protections further diminished. At this moment, environmentalists’ best chance to have an impact is to work alongside regulators to help increase protections and influence where wells can and can’t be located. This is becoming increasingly relevant as the state continues to auction off drilling leases for state-owned lands, including recreational areas and state parks.
There is certainly a role for groups to advocate for the utopian ideal. Our state’s natural resources would be safer if fracking were not permitted within its borders, just as they would be if we had no coal-fired power plants or factory farms, but this limited approach fails to recognize the many interests of a diverse citizenry.
And perhaps more importantly, campaigns such as the Ban Fracking in Michigan ballot initiative come on the heels of the Michigan Energy Michigan Jobs ballot initiative, competing for attention, volunteers and funding with what could prove to be the most influential environmental initiative this state has seen in a generation.
There is also a third position which further complicates the issue: That when compared to coal and gasoline, the preponderance of evidence still suggests that natural gas is the lesser of two evils. In a handful of cases, this has been interpreted in such a way to suggest that natural gas may be an environmentally friendly alternative. Or at the least, “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” The Sierra Club is the most notable example; the national organization endured a scandal earlier this year when it came to light that it had accepted substantial donations from natural gas interests (Michigan and other local chapters led the push for Sierra Club national to reverse this practice and alter their policies.).