TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Michigan could strengthen its supervision of a natural gas development process known as “fracking” by keeping a closer eye on surface and ground water near production wells and ordering companies to disclose more information about the chemicals they use, researchers said in a report released Friday.
The University of Michigan study also said regulators could require companies to do more up-front emergency planning and reuse wastewater before disposing of it, and could give the public a bigger voice in setting policies dealing with fracking.
The policy options were among many put forward in a 277-page draft report crafted by scientists, attorneys and other faculty in a multi-year project to identify choices facing the state as it grapples with an issue that has sparked nationwide debate.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, uses mixtures of water, chemicals and sand injected deep underground at high pressure to open cracks in shale and other sedimentary rock, releasing oil or natural gas.
“The purpose of the study is to pull together a massive amount of information and analyze the options in a way that is clear, so the state can look at these options and decide which if any they might want to adopt,” said Sara Gosman, one of the co-authors and a former Michigan law professor now at the University of Arkansas.
But an industry group said the researchers took a “negative tone” toward production of natural gas, which heats nearly 80 percent of Michigan’s homes.
“As it stands, the draft report misses the opportunity to provide a balanced discussion of the tradeoffs associated with the use of hydraulic fracturing in supplying the energy Michigan residents need for safety, comfort and economic well-being,” said Erin McDonough, president of the Michigan Oil and Gas Association.
Fracking has been used for decades to extract the minerals from hard-to-reach formations, with more than 12,000 fracked wells drilled in Michigan since the late 1940s.
More recently, technological advances have enabled companies to push much deeper than before, requiring vastly more water. High-volume wells in Michigan’s Utica-Collingwood shale formation reach up to 10,000 feet and use at least 20 million gallons each.
Only 13 such wells were producing gas as of late December. But companies have leased mineral rights on state land where hundreds of high-volume wells eventually might be located.
With high-volume fracking off to a slow start in Michigan, officials have an opportunity to assess existing regulations and make improvements where needed, said John Callewaert of the university’s Graham Sustainability Institute, which is directing the project.
“We’re trying to be an honest broker, present the strengths and weaknesses of the options,” Callewaert said.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality already is considering some rule changes the report mentions. Those updates are scheduled to take effect this spring, spokesman Brad Wurfel said.
“The state’s regulatory program is regarded nationally as one of the toughest — a safe, effective way to allow domestic energy production while protecting the land, air and water,” Wurfel said.
The report suggests several requirements for gas producers, including that they install test wells near fracking sites to detect potential contamination of groundwater, lakes or streams. It also says producers should consider new methods of dealing with waste brine and fracking fluids, which presently are injected back underground, such as treating and reusing the wastewater.
The report also suggests producers disclose all chemicals used in fracking fluids, including those considered trade secrets, which Michigan presently exempts from its reporting requirement, and carry liability insurance and prepare emergency response plans before fracking begins.
Other steps could include expanding opportunities for public participation in fracking management, the report said, as well as a temporary moratorium on high-volume fracking to allow more study of potential effects on people and natural resources.
Another possibility: a fracking ban, as New York recently imposed. But although supported by some environmental groups and at least 11 Michigan communities, it “comes at a cost of reducing income to mineral rights owners, industry and the state by preventing development of the resource,” the report said.
A final version of the report will be issued after feedback from other experts, state officials and the public.
This article was written by John Flesher from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.