Viewpoint: Forget fracking, Michigan

BY CHRIS TAKAHASHI

Published September 26, 2013

Earlier this month, the University announced preliminary findings from a two-year study on the effects of hydraulic fracturing in Michigan. The Hydraulic Fracturing in Michigan Integrated Assessment is regarded as the most comprehensive study on hydraulic fracturing in the state to date. Featuring the research of seven University professors, the integrated assessment draws on various disciplines, ranging from public health to economics. Although the findings are conclusive for only the first year of the two-year report, they are nonetheless important.

Integrated assessments are commonly prepared for policy makers, and since regulation pertinent to hydraulic fracturing is an active debate at the state level, this is a good step to take. At the present, the state of Michigan permits hydraulic fracturing. Well operators must follow certain guidelines, such as reporting chemical additives within 60 days to the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. However, energy companies are not required to publicly disclose chemicals used in the process. Because many of the chemicals used are carcinogens, citizens in Michigan and across the country are demanding public disclosure. Many companies claim that these chemical additives are proprietary, and are thus afforded a right to withhold the chemical content.

States have taken diverse approaches to regulation concerning hydraulic fracturing. New York has issued a moratorium on the practice, while California had no regulatory oversight concerning hydraulic fracturing until very recently. This past Friday, California Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, signed Senate Bill 4 into law, a measure establishing a permitting process and public disclosure system. Many of the key tenets of SB 4, including disclosure of chemicals, do not take effect until 2015. Ironically, the Western States Petroleum Association, a trade association representing oil interests in California, praised the regulation while environmental groups such as Sierra Club and Food and Water Watch pulled support for SB 4. The bill was significantly weakened through provisions added two weeks before the Senate vote Sept. 19.

Commonly referred to as “fracking,” hydraulic fracturing has been described as a “game changer” for domestic natural-gas production by industry and energy analysts. The American Petroleum Institute has run numerous commercials with one prevailing and convincing theme: Natural gas is the bridge fuel to American energy independence.

The Hydraulic Fracturing in Michigan Integrated Assessment, in addition to another non-industry funded study done by Post Carbon Institute, should be consulted by policymakers before such a conclusion is established in Michigan. PCI fellow and geoscientist David Hughes examined 65,000 wells from 31 shale gas plays in the United States for his report. The key findings of the report conclude that the majority of shale gas comes from five plays, with overall production at a relative plateau since December 2011. Individual wells experience steep decline rates — ranging from 79 to 95 percent — after 36 months. In order to maintain production, thousands of new wells must be constructed each year, posing enormous financial costs. An estimated $42 billion must be spent annually to merely maintain production by drilling more than 7,000 new wells. In 2012, the value of shale gas was estimated at $32.5 billion.

You may be thinking, “Why should I care about ‘fracking’ in Michigan?” After all, the state’s natural gas resources have not been tapped to the extent of Pennsylvania, and we probably will not be able to light the Huron River on fire anytime soon. However, the conversation regarding natural gas as an effective bridge fuel needs reexamination.

The University’s report contains significant statements that have been relatively absent from the national debate on fracking for natural gas. Regarding the economics of shale gas extraction, University researchers conclude that the job-creation potential of fracking in Michigan will not “make or break” the state’s economy. Secondly, a significant oil or gas boom in the state of Michigan is “unlikely,” even with advanced technology such as hydraulic fracturing. If the economic picture sounds mediocre, there are very real and unquestionable impacts on public health, the climate and regional ecosystems that result from hydraulic fracturing. The economic and geological constraints of hydraulic fracturing alone underscore a need for stronger, long-term energy policy in the state. A majority of Michigan citizens already support increased renewable energy — increased fracking is not required.

Chris Takahashi is an LSA senior.