New and significantly larger-scale hydraulic fracturing techniques have increasingly been used in Michigan as a means of extracting oil and natural gas from the ground. The new processes have been a boon for production nationally — so much so that industry is working hard to export supply.
Most major industrial extraction processes create a host of environmental issues, and fracking is no different. The use of toxic and undocumented proprietary chemicals, rapid withdrawals of large quantities of water, the industrial footprint of drilling sites and access roads, traditional air pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions are some of the larger issues that demand serious near-term solutions.
Administrative rules, such as the rules the DEQ is proposing, are issued within and under the authority of laws that are currently in place. Therefore, these rules are a small piece of the overall fracking discussion.
In order for larger-scale regulations to be put in place — which are necessary to protect Michigan’s land, water and property rights from fracking — those regulations would come from the state Legislature or federal government.
Not only are the proposed rules narrow in scope, but they don’t go far enough.
The rules are designed to reinforce current regulations and support a sampling of industry best-practices. The rules, however, do not substantially improve environmental protections.
The DEQ expresses a similar sentiment in their Regulatory Impact Statement issued with the rules, saying, “Because the proposed rules largely codify existing requirements contained in SOW (Supervisor of Wells) Instruction 1-2011, there is no necessary additional cost for (DEQ) staffing needs and no appropriation is necessary.”
The rules package shortchanges private property owners by allowing for permits to “be issued on a drilling unit that is not totally leased, pooled or communitized.” This change essentially denies property owners the right to a hearing on whether their property is included in a “drilling unit” before drilling begins.
So, while a property owner will still get a hearing, that hearing may be after drilling has begun.
Fracking chemical disclosure requirements still have not been adequately addressed. Under the proposed rules, the public will not know what chemicals will be injected into the ground until after the fracking has occurred.
The rules say the chemicals should be disclosed within 30 days. However, even when the chemicals are disclosed, drillers do not have to disclose all the chemicals they are using due to federal trade secrets protections.
Perhaps the most significant change in the rule is a requirement that companies perform baseline water quality testing for high-volume hydraulic fracturing (greater than 100,000 gallons). This is an important addition to Michigan’s regulatory regime; however, it should be required prior to and after all oil and gas exploration, completion and production, and not just high-volume fracking. Even though smaller operations use less water and chemicals, those smaller operations are in far greater numbers around the state, and citizens near these operations should also have the right to know their drinking wells and aquifers are unaffected.
In addition to protections for water quality, water quantity needs to be tightened. Michigan’s Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool and permitting system aren’t designed for the amount of water that is being withdrawn at such a rapid pace, as we see with fracking. Fracking operations in northern Michigan have used more than 20 million gallons for a single well in just a matter of days. The technical models and DEQ site visits need to account for these aggressive withdrawals of water.
Additionally, in the permit process, permittees are asked to estimate how much water they will use up-front, but then have a full 60 days to report the actual amount of water used after completing fracking operations. This allows significant flexibility to modify withdrawals without a re-evaluation from the WWAT or DEQ site investigator.
With this type of water withdrawal, there needs to be regulation to ensure fracking does not adversely impact the flow of our world-class trout streams, dry up drinking water wells or harm other water sources.
Government oversight is strengthened when the public engages the regulatory process. You don’t have to be a lawyer, oil and gas professional, or an environmental expert to ask questions and to express legitimate concerns and fears. You have until July 31 to do your research, gather your thoughts and be heard. The DEQ can be reached at 517-284-6823 or by email at DEQ-FrackingRules@michigan.gov.
Nicholas Occhipinti is the policy director for the West Michigan Environmental Action Council.