Fracking and freshwater:

Who is responsible for fracking wastewater and how does that affect Michigan’s economy, communities and ecosystems?

This is a map of the State of Michigan. The iconic Michigan glove is surrounded by freshwater lakes – the Great Lakes, which form part of the state’s natural and cultural identity.

Class II injection Wells
Graphic courtesy of the US EPA

On this map, the red dots represent Class II injection wells, predominantly along the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula. Fracking wastewater is injected into these wells and all fracking wastewater goes underground in Michigan. These injection wells raise complex and interrelated economic, social and environmental issues.

Which government agency should have primary enforcement responsibility (‘primacy’) over these wells – the US EPA or Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ)?

Additionally, what are the economic, social and environmental consequences should Michigan’s DEQ obtain primacy?

Michigan’s relationship with the oil and natural gas industry commenced in 1925 with the discovery of Saginaw Oil Field, when it became one of America’s oil producing states.

1920s Oil Rig Michigan
A Michigan relic: An oil rig from the 1920s. Photo courtesy of Lakeshore Museum Center.

 In the intervening years, hydraulic fracturing was developed, and has been used in Michigan since 1952 with over 12,000 fracking wells drilled.

The growth in natural gas through fracking has impacted the economy in direct ways due to increased revenue from taxation, royalties, lease payments, and storage fees, and increased capital investments.

According to the Graham Institute of Sustainability’s report, Michigan’s revenues from fracking in 2010 were $32.6 million, while private earn­ings from fracking were estimated at $81.5 million. In 2012, the Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources received $26.2million from the leasing of natural gas reserves on state land.

While the gas extraction industry creates employment and income for Michiganders, employment is modest compared with other industries, and not large enough to “make or break” the Michigan economy. In 2010, the industry employed roughly 2100 people in production and service industries, plus an additional 4-8%, employed as individual contractors.

Employment is the political justification given to help overcome resistance to shale gas development, but these figures do not justify the risks to the drinking supplies of 9.91 million Michiganders.

For state governments, the industry’s attraction is more likely linked with natural gas revenues, royalties and lease payments.

By obtaining primacy over fracking wastewater wells, Michigan retains greater control over the direction of the industry with the possibility of industry expansion and boosting state revenues.

For land owners in the vicinity of gas wells who did not hold title to productive mineral rights, their experience of gas fields was bleaker. Instead of wealth, property values have declined, dependent upon the land’s proximity to the gas well.

It is suggested that the experience of those living close to wastewater injection wells is similar, given the potential for drinking water contamination and tanker explosions which can occur when transporting the wastewater to the injection well sites.

Despite strict precautionary measures enforced through state regulation, concerns about the potential long-term environmental and health problems among the public remain a source of resistance to fracking.

Michigan’s identity is tied to its water wealth and its aquatic ecosystems which come from the Great Lakes and its interconnected rivers and wetlands. According to the University of Michigan’s Integrated Assessment on Fracking: “The presence of so many trout streams in the state represents significant cultural pride and identity for many Michiganders, their presence is due to the rich groundwater reserves that feed these streams”

Brook Trout
A Brook Trout which is found in colder Michigan waters. They are generally only found in snow and glacier-fed streams.

While many environmental groups argue for the application of the precautionary principle to protect groundwater supplies, Michigan’s Oil and Gas Association (MOGA) says fracking is a “safe, proven and essential process.”

Former MOGA President Frank Mortl said that “Michigan’s more than 60-year record of using hydraulic fracturing in over 12,000 Michigan wells — without environmental incident — demonstrates Michigan producers’ ability to use hydraulic fracturing safely and responsibly.” He said “claims about potential risk to water resources and lax regulatory oversight are unfounded.”

But these claims are not unfounded.

In Pennsylvania and Texas, a study led by Ohio State University researchers found groundwater contamination occurred when cement casing which was poorly constructed allowed fracking wastewater to migrate into the drinking water supply.

Of concern is Michigan’s vast interconnected aquatic systems and the hyporheic zones (the region beneath and alongside a stream bed, where there is mixing of shallow groundwater and surface water) and underground aquifers with which they exchange water, chemicals and organisms. The connectivity of these aquatic networks to the landscape and associated plant and animal communities can lead to impacts on land-based ecosystems. The chemical composition and salinity of fracking wastewater poses risks to ecosystems and groundwater drinking supplies. More on fracking chemicals used in Michigan can be found at fracfocus.org.

Are Michiganders aware of the state obtaining primacy from the EPA? How can environmental organizations help Michiganders become engaged with this issue?

Consider this – if natural gas producers were unable to store their wastewater underground in Michigan, fracking companies would become unviable as the transportation costs to dump the wastewater in other states would be too great. Typically, wastewater injection wells are located next to gas production wells. Those companies would be forced to look to cleaner energy technologies, including solar and wind power.

It is important for Michiganders to recognise that there are long-term risks to underground injection as a means of disposal, while the short-term economic benefits – revenues and employment- are not sufficient to justify further fracking development or injection well wastewater disposal. Fracking is an inherently unsustainable practice.

Natural resources, including our drinking water, are finite. In 2011, 4.2 billion gallons of fracking wastewater were injected underground in Michigan. To put that figure into context, 660 thousand gallons fills an Olympic sized swimming pool.

Michigan, home to the Great Lakes and 20% of the world’s freshwater supplies, is a global steward of its drinking water resources and aquatic ecosystems.

Those at environmental non-profits, like Clean Water Action, urge Michiganders to consider that is not too late to protect our drinking supplies, but now is the time to act before high-volume fracking becomes well-established which will lead to larger volumes of wastewater.

When you drink a glass of high-quality Great Lakes water, think about what you can do to become active in protecting yours and your children’s drinking water supplies.

Protecting our drinking water - It's in your hands
Protecting our drinking water – It’s in your hands

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