Fracking well in PA - photo from Sarah Sell
(WZZM) - You may have heard of hydraulic fracturing, better known as "fracking." It's a process to extract natural gas from below the surface. It uses water and chemicals, pumped into the ground and has become controversial in many states, including Michigan.
Oil and gas companies have been fracking for natural gas for 50 years, but it wasn't until recently that a larger-scale fracking process started taking place across the country.
"When this stuff comes to town, this quietness is out the window," says Steve Losher, who's the President of Michigan Land Air Water Defense, an environmental group in Barry County. Losher can't imagine areas like the Barry State Game Area being used for anything other than recreation.
In 2012, Michigan leased the minerals rights to the highest bidder. Most of the parcels were sold to energy companies, eager to find gas and oil reserves.
"These are quality of life issues. Land, water, noise, dust, we live in these communities." MLAWD recently filed a lawsuit hoping to nullify the leases. "With each fracking event, five million gallons of local water is withdrawn and mixed with a host of chemicals."
Since 2008, there have been 53 permits issued in Michigan, mostly in the Collingwood shale in the northern lower peninsula. That pales in comparison to the activity in the Marcellus shale in northeast Pennsylvania.
"In Susquehanna County, we are producing a billion cubit feet of gas with just over 200 wells," says Bill Desrosiers, with Cabot Oil & Gas.
Cabot is the largest producer in the area. The company agreed to take WZZM 13 on a tour of a hydraulic fracturing site. The process involves sending a drill into the ground up to 10,000 feet. Once it passes the fresh water aquifer, a concrete casing is place around the drill bit to prevent leaks. When the pipe is down far enough, it is bent horizontally.
"So, by turning the drill bit, going horizontally, we're opening more surface area for us to interact with the shale," says Desrosiers.
When it reaches its destination, a perforating gun blows holes in the shale. Then, a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals are pumped into the well. The high pressure "fracks" the shale and pockets of gas are released to the surface.
"So, we have a tremendous amount that's producing profound levels of gas that are leading us to energy security."
The success of the large scale fracturing has sent the price of natural gas to its lowest point in years. Natural gas can power homes and vehicles.
"Natural gas is a clean burning, fossil fuel. It's one of the cleanest fossil fuels," says Desrosiers.
The landowner also gets a cut of the gas produced at the site. "And those landowners now have great options: Retirement or farming for fun. We have some families that make sure kids and grand-kids can go to college."
Some question whether it's worth the risk. Back in 2009, residents in Dimock, Pennsylvania claimed that Cabot contaminated their drinking water. In 2010, some of the homeowners were featured in a documentary called 'Gasland.' They claimed Cabot contaminated their water with high levels of methane and fracking chemicals.
The farmland in Pennsylvania was also featured in the recent movie 'Promised Land.' The town seemed excited about getting rich. Then, they heard about environmental effects. The movie was shown as part of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council's film series.
Concerned resident Dottie Clune says, "I'm very interesting in knowing more. I think its important that, as citizens, we are knowledgeable." The movie got decent reviews, but when it came to a look at fracking, some were disappointed.
Craig Brainerd says the movie showed the community voting on the issue. "In Michigan and most other states, all kinds of gas and oil drilling are controlled by the state. Local communities have no control over that."
"Do you think it's safe? Yes," says Rick Henderson, Field Operations Supervisor for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. The MDEQ regulates the gas and oil industry. "We have never had any public health incidents or environmental incidents related to hydraulic fracturing."
Henderson says the company must do a baseline water assessment in the area, properly dispose of fracking fluid, and build a monitor well near each sight.
"If there was a leak, it would hit the monitor well and we sample those twice a year. So if anything happens, we will be able to take care of it before it reaches the lake," says Henderson. But, even with regulations, Henderson admits there are risks.
In Pennsylvania, Cabot was temporarily shut down due to three spills in 2009. The company made the necessary improvements but has denied contaminating the drinking water.
"Most recently, the Environmental Protection Agency came into Dimock, tested water for a number of compounds, and what they determined was that those compounds, many of which are prevalent in Pennsylvania, none of these compounds went past drinking water standards," says Desrosiers.
The results are still being debated, but its been a lesson for residents in Michigan. It's why Steve Losher wants to be pro-active about fracking.
"We're under no illusion to stopping fracking. We know it's here."
Losher wants to make sure it's not only safe, but done in a location that makes sense. "This is just not an industrial area and we want to keep it that way."
Some of the state land, like the Barry State Game Area, is under a non-development lease. That means the surface cannot be touched, but the minerals underneath can be used.
The MDEQ says it's too early to know how widespread fracking will be here in Michigan. It all depends on how much natural gas can be produced.