As a basic cable subscriber, I haven’t seen the film myself, but I have certainly seen the original.
While too sensationalized to be treated as a serious scientific effort, "Gasland" was nonetheless a powerful documentary and earned Josh Fox an Academy Award nomination in 2011. If you’re not familiar with the film, it helped make fracking arguably the most controversial environmental issue in several parts of the country today, including Michigan.
Although the term has a more specific definition in the oil and gas industry to describe the injection of water, lubricants and sand or ceramic proppants into well pipes to create fractures in rock formations through which oil or gas can flow for easier collection, it today is more commonly understood by the general public to describe the entire industrial process around high-volume, horizontal natural gas drilling. This approach is novel and has opened up previously untapped natural gas reserves in shale deposits across the country — including in Michigan’s Antrim, Utica and Collingwood deposits.
The basic concept is that the well pipe bends at a certain point, drilling horizontal, and then an extremely high-volume proprietary cocktail of chemical, sand, water and lubricants is blasted into (usually) a deep shale formation, tapping into many more fissures of natural gas than could possibly be accessed through a vertical well. Deposits once deemed unpractical to access become lucrative.
This has created a run on mineral leases in the state, with energy companies and speculators snapping up exploration rights at unprecedented rates. This “gold rush” touches both public and private lands, with industry “land men” aggressively lobbying land owners in Michigan’s rural and extraurban communities to sell drilling rights for their land, and the state auctioning off rights to public lands at unprecedented rates.
Although comparable numbers are not currently available for Ottawa County, a survey of land leases in Kent County showed the some 8.8 percent of its acreage is currently leased.
There is a long list of reasons to be concerned about fracking, some downright ludicrous in nature (injecting lubricants into fault lines!), but there are a handful of issues that rise to the top, some of those I’ll list below.
The worst of it is that clean, fresh water is permanently destroyed to produce something that at present the state does not really need — a glut of natural gas production has driven market prices down and made large-scale production much less attractive (Michigan Public Service Commission). Regardless, no form of new production can match the economic and social benefits of energy efficiency — the cheapest, cleanest and most quickly deployed source of energy available to Michiganders.
Fracking destroys water to make money; as much as 21 million gallons per frack. Current and pending drilling permits estimate proposed total water used in fracking operations in the hundreds of million of gallons. More, a major drilling company has floated plans for hundreds of new high-volume wells in Michigan.
State Rep. Marcia Hovey-Wright, D-Muskegon, announced at a press conference last week a package of eight bills designed to address some of the larger and least controversial issues involved in the practice. Some of the bills in the package would:
— Require the disclosure of the chemicals used in the fracking process (currently, about 930 chemicals have been used in the fracking process, according to information from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) and report the water used when it exceeds more than 100,000 gallons.
— Give municipalities and individuals the opportunity to request a public hearing before a fracking permit is issued, letting people have a say in the process.
— Allow local units of government to control fracking operations in their communities.
— Create a public-private advisory committee to study the effects of fracking and make recommendations.
— Increase the setback distance of fracking operations from residential areas and apply it to schools, hospitals, day care centers and public parks.
Unlike a similar set of bills last year, which included a moratorium on the practice to allow for further study, these bills have fairly unified support among the professional environmental community.
It’s none too soon. Fracking is happening as close as Ravenna, and could eventually find its way into the Tri-Cities community.
The proposed bills represent a commonsense and pragmatic approach that should provide, if nothing else, a means for the oil and gas industry and its regulators to understand and prevent potential problems before they occur, including those that are unique to Michigan geology. This is a simple effort to prevent the industry from learning from its mistakes at the cost of our precious freshwater resources.
Daniel Schoonmaker is the communications director for the West Michigan Environmental Action Council.