Hydraulic fracturing: misinformation vs. legitimate concerns


The buzz around the oil and gas industry these days can be summed up in two words: hydraulic fracturing.

“Fracking,” as it has become known in some circles, is surrounded by a cloud of myth and confusion. Though a proven technology, hydraulic fracturing has created controversy in Michigan’s backyard — but why?

A quick technical overview: Once an oil and gas well is drilled and cased with multiple layers of steel and concrete enclosing the wellbore, those layers of steel and concrete are perforated to allow access to the rock formation which holds the oil and gas to be produced. Then, thousands of feet below bedrock, the hydraulic fracturing process is applied to the well. It involves injecting water, sand and a mixture of chemicals into the target formation under very high pressures. This treatment creates fractures in the target formation that facilitate the production of natural gas.

Traditional vertical oil and gas wells in Michigan have been hydraulically fractured for more than 50 years. New drilling technologies now allow drilling companies to drill horizontally, meaning that much more of the target formation may be reached laterally rather than vertically. 

In Michigan, lateral horizontal wells as long as 10,500 feet from the surface well location have been drilled and hydraulically fractured. Here is the difference: Hydraulically fracturing horizontal wells requires considerable additional amounts of water than those required to fracture vertical wells.

So why all of the fuss? Unfortunately, the popular answer to that question is predicated on a good deal of misinformation propagated by various opponents to hydraulic fracturing. The most popular myth surrounding hydraulic fracturing is that it contaminates drinking water aquifers. 

One source of this misconception is the so-called documentary “Gasland,” which, without any meaningful explanation, contains videos of landowners lighting their tap water on fire. The film implies the oil and gas industry is currently engaged in an active campaign of contaminating drinking water supplies all over the country through the use of hydraulic fracturing.

But “Gasland”doesn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. In reality, there are no conclusive studies that have drawn a definitive link between hydraulic fracturing and contaminated water supplies. Unfortunately, by creating misconceptions regarding hydraulic fracturing, “Gasland” draws away from possibly legitimate concerns regarding the process.

One possibly valid concern is the large amount of fresh water used in the process, but state regulators have responded to these concerns. In 2011, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality instituted new regulations that require companies using large volumes of fresh water for hydraulic fracturing activities to complete a water withdrawal evaluation to determine if those withdrawals will have an adverse impact on fresh water sources. The regulations also require additional reporting instructions that require operators to disclose the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing operations.  

Notwithstanding measures like those implemented in Michigan, the controversial process has spurred litigation across the country. There has been little litigation in Michigan over the practice, but landowners have filed civil tort actions claiming the process has contaminated drinking water supplies. 

In other jurisdictions, oil and gas industry operators have successfully challenged attempts at local legislation to ban the practice. Other attempts to curb the practice have been found in challenges to pipeline approvals on the state and federal level. In Michigan, the most recent challenge has come in the form of a proposed ballot initiative to completely ban the process of hydraulic fracturing horizontal wells. 

Few conclusions can be drawn from these challenges, the most obvious being that the controversy will continue. But one that can be drawn is that there is a great deal of false information regarding the practice floating around, ranging from misunderstandings of the technical process to fears the process will cause everyone’s kitchen water tap to turn into a watery inferno. 

All of the hysteria aside, the good news is that Michigan maintains one of the most robust regulatory schemes that allows responsible hydraulic fracturing processes — all while protecting Michigan’s valuable freshwater resources. The lesson: Before passing judgment on a process that has been used in Michigan for years, get the facts.

David Whitfield is an attorney at Warner Norcross & Judd LLP who concentrates his practice in environmental law and litigation with a focus on oil and gas litigation. He can be reached at dwhitfield@wnj.com.

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