By Keith Matheny
New rules for hydraulic fracturing -- or fracking -- oil and gas well drilling will increase information available to concerned residents and keep better track of water impacts, state and environmental officials said.
Fracking is a controversial drilling practice where water mixed with chemicals and sand is blasted underground through high-pressure injection, causing tiny fractures in mineral layers to release oil and natural gas. Proponents note the practice has been used safely for decades. Critics point to the potential for contaminated groundwater and other negative effects.
The state Department of Environmental Quality's fracking rules, revised for the first time since 2011, emphasize high-volume fracking, a newer type of drilling using much larger amounts of water. A well drilled by Encana Oil and Gas, in Kalkaska County's Excelsior Township in the fall of 2012 used more than 21 million gallons of water, according to industry group FracFocus. There are currently 10 producing high-volume fracking oil and gas wells in Michigan and 27 pending, active permits, DEQ records show.
"These new rules add changes to improve transparency and give some assurance that there is adequate monitoring of hydraulic fracturing," said Harold Fitch, chief of the DEQ Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals.
A component of the new rules requires baseline water well testing in surrounding areas before high-volume fracking operations -- a move welcomed by James Clift, policy director at the nonprofit Michigan Environmental Council.
"So if something problematic occurs, there's no disagreement on what caused it," he said.
Clift said he wished the baseline well testing applied to all fracking operations -- not just high-volume ones.
"I was in a town hall meeting last week in Scio Township outside of Ann Arbor with about 300 people in the meeting audience wanting that same testing here," he said, adding the fracking operation in question wasn't a high-volume one.
"The oil and gas developers don't like it because they are spending more. But instead of testing 10 wells, they could test one or two wells. They could scale it to the size of the operation."
The new fracking rules also require full disclosure of the types and volumes of chemicals being injected into the ground, via FracFocus.com, a nationwide chemical disclosure registry, Fitch said.
"FracFocus is kind of the state of the art for listing," he said. "It shows every well that's drilled."
A drawback, however, is that developers have up to 30 days after a fracking operation to post the chemicals used, Clift said.
"Some residents want to be proactive about testing their drinking wells, but without knowing which chemicals they are going to be using, it's a little trickier," he said.
Developers, in their permit applications, must disclose if they intend to do high-volume fracking and the particulars of what they plan, Fitch said. They also must inform the DEQ 48 hours before they start a high-volume fracking operation under the new rules, he said.
"That's just so our field staff, our inspectors, know what's going to be going on, and they may choose to be out there to witness it," Fitch said. "If we get inquiries about it, we'll be able to tell people what is going on."
High-volume fracking operations' water use and its impacts will be monitored with a state evaluation tool known as the Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool. Clift said there are "clearly some limitations" with the tool, and expressed a desire for more sophisticated pump testing and monitoring of nearby streams during high-volume fracking operations.
The new rule-making included consultation with the oil and gas industry and concerned environmental groups. Fitch said.
"The industry feels like they are doing an adequate job right now," he said. "They are not crazy about additional reporting requirements, but they recognize there's a call to provide the information people want."
Public outreach now includes easier-to-decipher weekly lists of permit applications on the DEQ website that include comment boxes for the public, Fitch said. The agency is also notifying township supervisors of applications coming up in their township, he said. "Oil and gas development isn't risk-free; there's always a risk of spills and mishaps," Fitch said. "But we've got a long, safe history of hydraulic fracturing in Michigan. We think these rules augment that, and give some additional assurance."
Clift acknowledged Michigan's solid record on fracking safety. "But you've got to acknowledge that it's only in recent years that the high-volume fracking has occurred," he said. "Therefore, the regulations need to keep up with the risks, and this is a step in the right direction."
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