Study examines concerns over ‘fracking’ in Michigan

By Ian Dillingham, Summer Editor in Chief
Published June 11, 2014

As debates occur nationwide over the continued use of hydraulic fracturing — colloquially known as fracking — to extract oil and natural gas from shale deposits deep beneath the surface of the earth, University researchers have released a report examining public perceptions of this controversial practice in Michigan.

The Center for Local, State and Urban Policy published the report last week, compiled with data from the center’s biannual Michigan Public Policy Survey of local governments. About 1,350 jurisdictions responded to the survey, which also gauged perceptions on issues pertaining to wind energy, bankruptcy and the Great Lakes.

CLOSUP program manager Thomas Ivacko said the survey’s goal was to shed light on public opinion, especially given that the issue will likely only intensify moving forward as it has in other states.

“The objective was to get a sense of how fracking is playing out as an issue in Michigan communities,” Ivacko said. “Even though it’s not happening much, it is a topic of conversation in quite a few places.”

The survey revealed surprising results in several areas. For example, it demonstrated that fracking is still a rare occurrence in Michigan despite the media attention it has received. Only 6 percent of jurisdictions reported that the practice was occurring in their area.

The study also showed public perception of fracking may not be very clearly defined. While only 11 percent of officials said the majority of their jurisdiction would support fracking, almost one-third of those same officials said they support fracking themselves.

In addition, the data also pointed to some regional disparities on the issue, with greater support for fracking in northern regions of the Lower Peninsula where the practice is more commonly implemented.

Ivacko noted that fracking is not a new occurrence. In fact, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, oil and gas companies have been using the technique — pumping water, sand and chemicals into wells to allow for the release of natural gas and oil — since 1952.

Recently, however, some companies have utilized an updated method, known as high-volume hydraulic fracturing, to service larger areas and extract greater quantities of oil and gas. These wells descend up to 5,000 feet below the ground and extend horizontally once they reach an ideal depth.

Ivacko said the new technique is controversial, in part, because it uses more water and chemicals. Whereas vertical wells may use up to 100,000 gallons of water, some horizontal wells can require as much as 20 million gallons.

However, the Michigan DEQ has said that current practices do not present a safety risk to humans and are not placing a strain on resources.

Among the factors encouraging fracking, survey respondents listed — in order — “revenue for land-owners”, “local property tax revenue” and “potential environmental benefits from cleaner-burning gas instead of coal” as the top three.

The top three factors discouraging factors were “potential risks to water resources”, “potential environmental damage linked to fracking operations, such as spills, leaks, etc.” and “potential risks to citizens’ health”.

The study found the opinions varied between jurisdictions, but that most, regardless of how they viewed fracking, wanted greater control over regulating the practice.

Among local officials, 63 percent felt that local governments should have a great deal of authority in regulating fracking in their jurisdiction, whereas only 16 and 45 percent felt federal and state governments should have a great deal of authority, respectively. Current law places the majority of regulatory power in the hands of the state government, as opposed to local ones.

“Local governments in Michigan really are pretty severely restricted in what they can do about fracking,” Ivacko said. “Certainly for townships and for counties, it’s going to be a great uphill battle for them to stop any kind of fracking in their jurisdiction.”

While cities, townships and counties do all have varying degrees of control over fracking operations, Ivacko said they remain limited.

“At the moment, for the most part, local governments are going to lose out,” he said. “Clearly this is a state-level policy topic and the state has reserved the authority to regulate it for themselves.”