The process is the same: Drills burrow thousands of feet below the surface to make way for large quantities of water, sand and chemicals to be pumped into the ground to create fissures for gas to flow through.
Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, has existed in Michigan since 1952, largely without opposition or question. More than 12,000 wells have been drilled during the past six decades the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) hasn’t recorded a major leak or spill in that time.
Despite what industry officials call an impressive safety track record, this method of natural gas extraction is under fire.
Advances in technology allow energy companies to dig deeper and efficiently extract more natural gas and oil, creating a nationwide boom in supply and raising environmental concerns among residents of producing states, such as Michigan.
The method is called horizontal hydraulic fracturing. After drilling into the shale bed, companies then drill horizontally into the rock, allowing them to draw oil and gas from a larger area of the subterranean deposit.
While a traditional vertical well generally goes down 2,000 to 3,000 feet, a horizontal well shaft goes down 5,000 feet or more then extends as far as two miles horizontally.
Horizontal fracking also requires significantly more water to be pumped into wells – increasing groundwater use from a few hundred thousand gallons to as much as 20 million gallons per blast.
Industry analysts and the DEQ insist the extraction methods used for so-called high-volume wells differ from traditional wells only in scope and, therefore, pose no greater threat to the environment.
“This is part of Michigan, this is something that the DEQ has regulated since before the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act in the 1970s,” DEQ communications director Brad Wurfel said. “The difference between the old and the new fracturing is scale – it uses more water.”
Some environmental advocates criticize hydraulic fracturing, including the Committee to Ban Fracking in Michigan, which is gearing for its second push to prohibit new horizontal fracking.
Starting April 12, the Charlevoix-based group will try to collect 258,088 voter signatures for a November 2014 legislative ballot initiative to stop the practice.
The group failed to get enough signatures to put a similar constitutional amendment on last November’s ballot.
“The proposal is to ban horizontal fracking and also the waste that is produced,” campaign director LuAnne Kozma said. “We believe the process itself is a waste.”
Kozma said she’s concerned with the amount of water taken from state aquifers, as well as the pollution potential when fracking solution is removed from wells.
The solution is 90 percent water, 9.5 percent sand and 0.5 percent chemicals. But after it’s pumped into a well, pressurized to fracture the shale and withdrawn, the solution is also contaminated with other materials it picks up during the process.
DEQ’s Wurfel said it’s not a huge toxic threat going in, but “when it gets down there, it mixes with natural brines and anything else that’s already down there – the hydrocarbons that they’re going after – so the water that comes back up is a concern.
“And there are strict requirements for not storing it, for example, in an open pit.”
Michigan’s regulations are set up to prevent environmental problems during the drilling, fracking and extraction processes, said Rick Henderson, field operations supervisor for the DEQ’s Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals.
Henderson said he and the geologists who work under him monitor the process from start to finish to ensure companies follow Michigan’s stringent rules for so-called flowback water removal and storage.
Wurfel said flowback water is extracted from wells and transported in steel-cased tanks to deep injection wells – open pockets thousands of feet underground made up of impermeable rock.
But Kozma said dealing with such large quantities risky.
“Those casings have to last forever or else that frack water is going into the aquifers,” she said. “We’re creating a slow-leaking nightmare. Some people would like to talk about them as proper disposal, but it’s all going to come back at us.
“There’s no recourse once an aquifer is contaminated. What do you do? Do you move a town? Do you move an entire region of Michigan? No, you can’t,” she said.
Opponents also express concerns that such large-scale fracturing cause earthquakes or other geological disturbances.
Warren Wood, a hydrogeologist and geoscience professor at Michigan State University, said there’s “no question” fracking causes earthquakes, but on such a small scale that they cannot be felt in Michigan.
Supply and demand
Michigan has approved about 130 high-volume wells, including 52 between 2008-12, said Hal Fitch, chief of the Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals.
Michigan generally ranks among the top 20 states for oil and gas production, standing 17th and 16th, respectively, in 2011 according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
While technological advances are expanding natural gas production, they also are oversaturating the market. Once thought to be a “transition fuel,” the natural gas supply is projected to be enough to last for the next century, said Erik Bauss, Michigan field director for Energy In Depth, a research and advocacy group for the oil and gas industry based in Washington, D.C.
The prices of natural gas prices in the U.S. are less than a third of what they were in 2008 and are about a third of European prices and one-quarter of prices in Asia. Because the fuel is so cheap, Bauss said, production is less profitable than it was a few years ago.
Oil and gas-related drilling permits issued in Michigan have decreased significantly in recent years. After climbing steadily at the beginning of the new millennium and peaking with 912 permits in 2008, the number dropped substantially to 271 in 2009 and falling to 198 last year.
Wurfel said a reason for the decline is that one horizontal well can produce as much natural gas as 10 to 20 smaller vertical wells. Consolidating production also reduces the amount of surface disturbance, Wurfel said.
And Bauss said a major reason groups such as the Sierra Club oppose horizontal fracking and natural gas as a fuel is because it takes momentum away from renewable energy sources.
“What that does is destroy their hopes and dreams about renewable energy, particular solar and wind,” he said. “You can estimate about 35 times more fuel can come out of these than the traditional wells. It’s not going to be a five- or 10-year supply, which is what everyone thought.”
But Kozma said that’s not part of her anti-fracking group’s agenda. “Our proposal is simply anti-frack – it is not pro anything else. There’s no hidden agenda by some other company or some other sector of the economy.”