Thursday, February 10, 2011

Northern Michigan gas well leak should strengthen calls for public discussion of fracking regulations, impending natural gas boom

Photo (not the leaking well) Heather Rousseau, Circle of Blue

Earlier this week a natural gas well in northern Michigan was abruptly shut down after hazardous toxic chemicals leaked from it. There will be an investigation and follow up to ensure that nearby water wells are not poisoned.

Natural gas is the only fossil fuel that provides Michigan with some measure of energy independence. (That is, we import all our coal, and almost all our oil but 25 percent of our gas is from in-state wells). We’ve done gas extraction for decades with minimal problems save for the marring of landscapes with access roads, pipelines and processing stations. It’s ugly and intrusive, and it’s part of the tradeoff (it’s near zero degrees as I write this, with the furnace furiously burning the stuff.) 

But there are significant environmental and health risks, including the danger of water contamination from toxic chemicals involved in the extraction technique known as underground hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” The federal Environmental Protection Agency is proposing a study of the full range of fracking’s environmental risks.

In Michigan those risks may soon increase exponentially. A huge new boom in natural gas extraction is on the horizon, foreshadowed by natural gas rights auctions in 2010 where speculators spent seven times more money buying gas drilling rights than ever before. The gas they want is far deeper underground than the traditional deposits we’ve mined, meaning up to 100 times the volume of chemical-laced water must be used. Some of that chemical broth is left underground. The rest must be recovered, stored, transported and disposed of in deep injection wells. The kinds and amounts of the chemicals used are a trade secret.

I did some reporting on the issue for the Michigan Environmental Council in a 2010 two-story package here and here. At that time, Hal Fitch, the head of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Office of Geological Survey, told me he believed the state’s existing rules were adequate to protect drinking water, lakes, and streams should a new frenzy of more intensive gas drilling take place.

Fitch says that Michigan has better regulations than many other states where fracking leaks and spill have had disastrous consequences.

Even so it seems reasonable – even incumbent – on the state and the industry to explain the new natural gas landscape to Michiganders as we prepare to push into a new, uncharted era of drilling intensity. A robust series of public meetings could both educate the public and provide citizen input to state regulators. If the rules are indeed adequate they should stand up to public scrutiny.

To date, however, neither Fitch’s agency nor the industry have seemed eager to begin a public dialogue. Maybe the Benzie County spill will change that. Indeed, the initial Associated Press story indicates that regulators will “likely…review some drilling regulations.” 

That review should be transparent, in public, and with citizen participation. Not behind closed doors.

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