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How One State Gets It Right On Fracking (Fingers Crossed!)

Mounting evidence of water contamination, air pollution and even earthquakes has been piling on to the natural gas drilling method known as fracking, while state and federal agencies have been scrambling to develop a platform for managing future impacts. They’ve been left far behind in the dust, partly because a Titanic-sized loophole exempts fracking operations from key federal regulations.

However, at least one state appears to be determined to get ahead of the game. Michigan, which has yet to see widespread deep-well drilling within its borders, has just released a series of seven studies designed to anticipate and prevent negative impacts, if and when it gets hit by the fracking boom.

The University of Michigan Fracking Studies

The University of Michigan is behind the series of fracking studies, which examine seven key areas including economic as well as environmental impacts.

The studies form only the first phase of a two-part project so rather than jump to conclusions, let’s look at a couple of general concepts that jump out.

One major question that the studies address is why there isn’t already a stronger regulatory structure for fracking in Michigan under state law, if the impacts of fracking and related operations are supposed to be so bad.

In that regard, the studies point out that until recently the known impacts haven’t been “so bad,” at least partly because the operation has been quite different in the past.

University of Michigan fracking study.

Michigan (cropped) by Dougtone.

According to the studies, fracking (which involves pumping a chemical brine underground) has been used to drill about 12,000 gas and oil wells in Michigan since the 1940’s, with no negative impacts reported.

However, for the most part many of these have been fairly shallow, vertical wells requiring only about 50,000 gallons of water for the fracking operation.

That’s strictly small potatoes compared to modern fracking operations, which involve far deeper vertical wells, horizontal drilling, and millions of gallons of water. So far, only 19 such wells have been recorded in Michigan since 2010.

Nineteen wells may not be a large enough sample to draw conclusions about statewide impacts, but outside of the University of Michigan study there have already been indications that modern fracking operations can lead to significant local water supply issues, as drillers dig new wells for water at the drilling site, or draw from local supplies.

In one Michigan community, residents lost water pressure and tap water at one household “looked like milk coming out of the faucet” after drilling began nearby.

Now add in the fact that Michigan law requires fracking wastewater to be disposed in inactive wells – a practice linked to earthquakes – and you can see how a future upswing in modern fracking operations could cause significant new problems, even though generally speaking the operation has had a long and uncontroversial history in the state.

Fracking And Jobs

Another thing that jumps out of the University of Michigan studies is the impact on job creation. The studies indicate that the job-creating potential of fracking needs to be viewed in the broader context of a state’s economic activity.

For the impact in Michigan, the studies conclude:

The gas extraction industry creates employment and income for Michigan, but the employment effects are modest compared with other industries and not large enough to “make or break” the state’s economy. In the future, the number of technical jobs in the industry will likely increase, while less-skilled laborer positions will decline.

Given the studies’ concerns about significant environmental impacts, it’s fair to ask whether short term new job creation in the fracking industry would come at the expense of more sustainable employment sectors in Michigan including tourism and agriculture (though as we’re fond of pointing out, long term employment in the environmental remediation field is always a possibility in the event of a major contamination incident).

The good news is, Michigan has a bit of breathing room. Although it sits on a rich shale gas deposit ripe for modern fracking operations, a recent downturn in the natural gas market means that at least for the near future, the state will not experience the kind of fracking boom bedeviling Pennsylvania and other states.

Stay tuned: the second phase of the University of Michigan studies will be an analysis of policy options, due out around the middle of next year.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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