Seven technical reports released that together form the most comprehensive Michigan-focused resource on hydraulic fracturing, the natural gas and oil extraction process.
The studies, conducted by University of Michigan researchers and totaling nearly 200 pages, examine seven critical topics related to the use of hydraulic fracturing in Michigan, with an emphasis on high-volume methods: technology, geology and hydrogeology, environment and ecology, public health, policy and law, economics, and public perceptions.
While considerable natural gas reserves exist in Michigan and high-volume hydraulic fracturing has the potential to help access them, they also have to address the possible impacts to the environment and to public health, the U-M researchers said.
Though modern high-volume hydraulic fracturing is not widely used in Michigan today, a main premise of the U-M study is the technique could become more widespread due to a desire for job creation, economic growth, energy independence and cleaner fuels.
“There’s a lot of interest in high-volume hydraulic fracturing, but there really isn’t much activity at the moment in Michigan,” said John Callewaert, project director and director of integrated assessment at U-M’s Graham Sustainability Institute, which is overseeing the project. “That’s why now is a good time to do this assessment.”
These reports conclude the first phase of a two-year U-M project known formally as the Hydraulic Fracturing in Michigan Integrated Assessment. The seven documents provide a solid informational foundation for the project’s next phase, an analysis of various hydraulic fracturing policy options. That analysis be ready to go in mid-2014 and will end up shared with government officials, industry experts, other academics, advocacy groups and the general public.
“Nothing like this has been done before in Michigan,” Callewaert said. “Having this comprehensive, state-specific set of reports will be an invaluable resource that will help guide future decision-making on this issue — and hopefully will help Michigan avoid some of the pitfalls encountered in other states.”
Conclusions of the reports, written by faculty-led, student-staffed teams from various disciplines, include:
• Technology. In view of the current low price of natural gas, the high cost of drilling deep shale formations and the absence of new oil discoveries, it is unlikely that there will be significant growth of the oil and gas industry in Michigan in the near-term future.
• Geology/hydrogeology. A recent flurry of mineral rights acquisitions in the state associated with exploratory drilling suggests the potential for growth in natural gas production through high-volume hydraulic fracturing.
• Environment/ecology. Potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on the environment are significant and include increased erosion and sedimentation, increased risk of aquatic contamination from chemical spills or equipment runoff, habitat fragmentation and resulting impacts on aquatic and terrestrial organisms, loss of stream riparian zones, and reduction of surface waters available to plants and animals due to the lowering of groundwater levels.
• Public health. Possible hazards in the surrounding environment include impaired local and regional air quality, water pollution and degradation of ecosystems.
• Policy/law. The state is the primary source of law and policy governing hydraulic fracturing in Michigan. The operator of a high-volume hydraulically fractured well must disclose the hazardous constituents of chemical additives to the state Department of Environmental Quality for each additive within 60 days of well completion.
• Economics. 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.
• Public perceptions. A slight majority of Michigan residents believe the benefits of fracking outweigh the risks, but significant concerns remain about the potential impacts to human health, the environment and groundwater quality.
In fracking, water, sand and chemicals (in a mix known as hydraulic fracturing fluid) end up injected under high pressure deep underground to crack sedimentary rocks, such as shale, and free trapped natural gas or oil. Though the process has been in use for more than half a century to improve well production, technical advances helped unlock vast stores of previously inaccessible natural gas and oil, resulting in a boom in some parts of the United States.
Chief among the technical advances are directional drilling and high-volume hydraulic fracturing, which often end up used together. In directional drilling, the well operator bores vertically down to the rock formation, then follows the formation horizontally.