By: Kyle Shutz and Matthew Knaack
WMEAC has created the following primer for citizens and stakeholders interested in following the hydraulic fracturing issue in Barry County.
What will happen to the Yankee Springs Recreation Area?
On May 8, 23,419 acres of state land in Barry County were auctioned off for lease to gas companies. Most of Yankee Springs Recreation Area was leased at the auction under the designation of “non-development.” Officials at the DNR confirmed that this designation means there can be no surface-level changes made to the land parcels, but horizontal drilling is still permitted. Also, the lease contracts from the auction give companies the ability to apply for re-designation of parcels through a process of application and review, allowing them to have “non-development” parcels re-designated as “development” or “development with restriction” parcels.
Although parcels could potentially be re-designated, the land legally designated as Yankee Springs Recreation Area cannot be due to its status as a public park and recreation area. However, WMEAC is still unclear as to what portion of the area has that legal distinction.
Mike Miller, president of Miller Energy Company, has publicly stated that he does not think Yankee Springs will be a successful area for fracking, gas companies have leased the land, leading us to believe that their intentions are to at least explore it.
A complete list of questions after the jump.
Why were these gas leases granted?
Although leases for gas exploitation on State land have been around for a while, the recent auction resulted from the creation of a State House Subcommittee to Examine Natural Gas Research in 2011. This committee was in charge of exploring natural gas extraction and use in Michigan and its final report was presented on April 24, recommending the lease of 5.3 million acres of state land for oil and gas exploitation. This report inspired the auction of 108,000 acres over 23 counties on Tuesday, May 8.
The land was nominated for lease by interested companies and individuals. In the case of Barry County, the land was nominated by Energy Quest INC.
What is the history of hydraulic fracturing in Michigan?
According to Director of the Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals for the Department of Environmental Quality, Hal Fitch, more than 12,000 wells have been opened through hydraulic fracturing in the state of Michigan since the 1960s—a majority of these wells are still producing today. He added that, in this state, neither the environment nor public health have been compromised by the practice. Yet, this is the “old” fracking practice; it is performed on a much smaller scale and is not the fracking practice that has generated all of the problems and controversy nationwide. The “new” high-volume deep injection horizontal fracturing drilling techniques are a much different animal and are just coming to Michigan.
A surface leak that occurred in February 2011 at a fracked shallow gas well may speak to the contrary. According to the DEQ, the leak—which occurred in Benzie County—did not contaminate groundwater in the area and was cleaned up before any harm could be done. Officials with the DEQ stated that shallow gas wells have a higher potential to cause an impact on groundwater than deep wells. Despite this, deep wells have contaminated drinking water in other states, according to emerging EPA reports and a chorus of critics. This may be caused by the increased amount of pressure and fluid used in the fracking of deeper wells.
The public auction of mineral rights on May 8 is not the first time that such a sale has happened. In May 2010, $170 million was spent on the rights to deep shale formations by some sizable oil and gas companies. By February 2011, only two production wells had been completed.
Are there any current bill proposals to stop fracking or to make the process more safe?
Yes, there is a package of bills that has been introduced by House Democrats, including: HB 5565, HB 5151, HB 5150, HB 5149, and HB 4736. These bills have three goals: (1) place a moratorium on fracking for two years; (2) provide funding for a study to be done on Michigan fracking and its environmental implications; and (3) require fracking companies to publicly disclose the chemicals used in order to trace chemicals found in water and soil samples to specific companies and wells.
The last of the five bills was introduced on April 24th, but since then none of the bills have had any significant movement through the House.
How does “fracking” differ from traditional natural gas extraction methods?
- Hydraulic fracturing uses a mixture of water, sand and chemicals. These fracking “cocktails” are known to contain hazardous substances and chemicals associated with cancer and other health hazards. Importantly, there are also unknown “proprietary” chemicals that remain undisclosed in full detail to the public or state regulators.
- The amount of water used in hydraulic fracturing is as much as 100 times more than traditional extraction methods. In measurement, this translates to an amount between 2 and 6 million gallons per wellhead. This water is pumped into wells that are thousands of feet deeper than traditional wells. Water used is often local to the wellhead—it is extracted, used and converted into wastewater once it is no longer needed. This wastewater is stored in steel containers until it can be deposited underground in waste wells.
- Horizontal drilling is often implemented in fracking practices— horizontal drilling is an extraction method that uses a substantially larger amount of fracking fluid to more easily access large areas of natural gas from a single wellhead. One horizontal well can often more effectively access a square mile of natural gas than 16 vertical wells. The fracking industry’s hope for horizontal fracking is that it will reduce the footprint of wells and drilling sites while increasing the production of natural gas. The increased amounts of fracking fluid required for horizontal drilling not only makes the potential size of a contamination incident much larger, but also makes the task of post-drilling chemical disposal much larger.
What is WMEAC’s position on horizontal hydraulic fracturing in Michigan?
Given that Michigan is in a different position geologically, and has better regulations than other states, WMEAC is not yet ready to request a permanent moratorium on horizontal hydraulic fracturing. WMEAC does, though, support the set of bills that have recently been proposed to place a two-year moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in Michigan in order to do more research on its state-wide environmental impact.
There are groups in Michigan dedicated to banning fracking. Don’t Frack Michigan is leading this charge, and WMEAC certainly supports the passion and intent of these groups in protecting Michigan’s priceless water resources, but feels that the viability of such positions in achieving increased ground and surface water protections is questionable.
Finally, despite WMEAC not calling for an outright ban on fracking, it remains true that WMEAC always supports energy efficiency and energy optimization measures first, and then seeks non fossil-fuel, clean energy production second. Only when these options are technologically and economically exhausted should the conversation move to considering natural gas and other fossil fuels – and Michigan is nowhere near that point. Quite the contrary, energy efficiency is the cheapest, cleanest and most quickly deployed source of new energy for Michiganders, and clean energy is proving cheaper than new coal while continuing to drop in price.
Questions that still need to be answered
1. How difficult is it to change a land parcel designation to “development” despite being on a State Park or Recreation Area? Is the entirety of Yankee Springs surface land protected under the non-development designation, or are there pieces of property that are technically not recreation area and where development would be allowed?
2. Does the geological makeup of the Yankee Springs area require deep, horizontal drilling, or can more traditional techniques be used?
3. Why is the state auctioning land during a period of historically low natural gas prices? Wouldn’t the public interest be better served and better compensated to hold off?
4. What companies bought up most of the leases and what do the environmental records of these companies look like?
5. Would major drilling operations near or adjacent to Yankee Springs recreational area impact hunting, fishing, camping, biking and nature activities from a noise or air pollution perspective?
6. Would roads have to be built through the recreation area to service well-operations adjacent to the recreation area?
7. What type of impact would major drilling operations have on local business and tourism in the Yankee Springs area?