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No Applause For New Fracking Rules

Bob Allen
Gas drilling in Kalkaska County

New rules proposed for oil and gas drilling in Michigan are getting a mixed response, at best, from watchdog groups. The rules would apply to a type of drilling often referred to as “fracking.” Critics say the proposed changes continue to favor the oil and gas industry over neighbors and the public.

The official line in Michigan has long been that drilling for oil and gas is well-regulated and done safely, but many people are not convinced.

Hal Fitch directs the state’s supervision of the oil and gas industry and says they are responding to those concerns.

“We saw some need to make some changes, some improvements,” Fitch says, “partly because of changing technology, partly because of public concern out there over hydraulic fracturing.”

A certain type of hydraulic fracturing--the controversial one known as fracking--is relatively new in Michigan.

Oil and gas wells have been drilled here for most of the past century, but new methods go after energy sources that are much deeper in the earth and locked away in rock formations.

It takes millions and millions of gallons of water to break up, or fracture, all that rock, and the water gets mixed with chemicals.

So far, this has not contaminated any drinking water in Michigan, but one of the proposed rules would require companies to test nearby drinking wells before drilling.

“So then if there’s any question about contamination, we’d have something to compare it to,” says Fitch.

Some people who have been urging the state to take the dangers of fracking more seriously are not impressed with the proposal.

Tom Baird, with the group Anglers of the Au Sable, says there’s lots of drilling activity near the headwaters of the Au Sable and Manistee Rivers. He says testing drinking wells will do nothing to guard these pristine rivers.

“These water withdrawals are so severe that in a given case they can dry up a stream, or almost dry up a stream.”

Anglers claims that happened to the North Branch of the Manistee. The group has been working with reseachers at Michigan State University to monitor stream flows near where drilling has occurred.

The data was presented to the state. Hal Fitch disagrees with their conclusions and says the existing rules are sufficient to protect streams.

Baird says that system is clearly not working. In one case, a drilling operation ran dry even though the state’s assessment said there should have been plenty of groundwater.

A coalition of environmental and conservation groups that Anglers is a part of will give a formal review of the proposed rules next week.

No more road spraying

The proposed rules address another problem related to water and fracking: getting rid of contaminated water after the drilling is done. Contaminated water from gas wells has been spread onto dirt roads in Benzie, Kalkaska, and Cheboygan counties to control dust.

The new rules propose fines and even criminal penalties for people who spray contaminated fracking water, known as flowback. Fitch says the fines can be up to $1,000 per day.

Critics counter that the key to that provision, and any other, will be enforcement. A recent report from the Auditor General found shortcomings in the Department of Environmental Quality’s enforcement practices. 

The new rules are still a proposal, one the DEQ has been working on for months. It is close to being finalized.

James Clift at the Michigan Environmental Council says all this is a step in the right direction but there are still changes he would like to see made. He can’t understand why the proposed rules only apply to deep shale wells and not traditional wells that require less water to drill.

Clift says it can be tough to get changes at this stage in the process.

“But I think if enough people in the public raise their voices, we’ve seen changes in the past,” says Clift.

Public hearings in the coming weeks are expected to include one in northern Michigan.

[This article was clarified to draw the distinction between older methods of drilling and the high volume hydraulic fracturing operations which are subject to the proposed rules.]