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The Fracking Debate in Michigan

An interesting – and somewhat controversial – land use issue that is currently being addressed by many Michigan officials is a technique known as “fracking.” Fracking, a slang term for hydraulic fracturing, is a method of extracting oil and natural gas from beneath the earth’s surface by utilizing underground hydraulic pressure. The process involves high-pressure mixtures of water, sand and chemicals being injected underground in order to fracture rock formations and release trapped oil and natural gas resources. Fracking is not a new technique: it has been around since the 1940s, and an estimated 12,000 wells in Michigan have been hydraulically fractured. Since the federal government generally has a very limited influence on a state’s fracking policies, Michigan has been left with the opportunity to implement its own policies without much federal oversight.

There are numerous benefits and concerns associated with fracking. The benefits include enhancing natural gas recovery, lowering electricity prices, decreasing reliance on foreign energy sources, and other economic benefits like job creation. There are also environmental benefits, since natural gas emits approximately half the amount of carbon dioxide emissions as coal and oil, which in turn decreases the amount of greenhouse gases being released that are contributing to climate change.

There are also a number of risks associated with fracking. First, fracking raises significant concerns about air quality, since the initial drilling process can release cancer-causing chemicals like benzene and methane into the atmosphere. Another, more significant environmental concern relates to water quality. This issue is particularly significant in Michigan, considering the amount of fresh water that surrounds the state. Drilling for fracking requires the use of significant amounts of water. By way of example, 3 fracking wells in Kalkaska County have used an estimated 42 million gallons of water in the past two years alone. Of further concern is the fact that the “flowback” water, the contaminated water that remains after drilling, never returns to the water table because of the chemicals injected into it during the fracking process. In light of the water’s chemical content, the fluids used must be disposed of carefully so as not to cause any further contamination. There are also contamination risks from natural gas spills and leaks from the wells. All of these issues raise concerns about the potentially negative impacts that contaminated water and soil may have on human health, surrounding ecosystems, and wildlife and vegetation.

Fracking has recently drawn significant media attention in Michigan, and across the country, because of new technical advances that allow for a major expansion of fracking. These technical advances allow access to huge stores of underground resources that were previously inaccessible through horizontal drilling, which is done at much deeper ranges than before. While drilling has typically been done at a range of 500 to 2,000 feet, horizontal drilling now allows for depths ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 feet. This deeper drilling requires substantially more fresh water and chemicals, but also reduces the footprint on the surface since one deep horizontal well can replace anywhere from 10 to 20 vertical wells. The environmental consequences and long-term impacts of the increased water and chemical use are largely unknown at this point.

Despite these potential environmental consequences, the State of Michigan has assured citizens that it has stringent regulations in place to ensure that fracking does not negatively impact the environment. Governor Snyder has expressed his approval of fracking, but only if done in an environmentally conscious manner. Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality has also clarified that past instances in which natural gas has entered and contaminated fresh water aquifers were caused by improper well construction, rather than fracking. The State also claims that it has not had issues with the flowback water contaminating bodies of water because Michigan regulations require that flowback water be disposed of in steel tanks and stored in deep injection wells. The State has also made an effort to alleviate concerns by assuring citizens that oil and gas companies are subject to the same requirements regarding water use as other users, and if their proposed water use would strain the local water supply, it would not be approved or permitted.

Fracking is an important and evolving matter facing Michigan residents, and it understandably invokes strong opinions on both sides of the issue. The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich, PLC have extensive experience in litigating a variety of land use issues in Michigan and across the country. If you have any questions about fracking or the legal issues it raises, please feel free to contact us at (248) 971-2400 to discuss your matter.

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