Jim Lynch | May 25, 2012 | The Detroit News | Shared as an educational material
Just two years ago Michigan was well on its way to becoming Pennsylvania West — following in that state’s footsteps as the next hotbed of natural gas exploration and production.
Since that time, the plummeting price of natural gas and concerns over the technology used to extract it — hydraulic fracturing — have brought the expected boom to a standstill.
“There is so much gas that we already (know) can be produced cheaply that exploring new areas and trying to commercialize them has ground to a halt everywhere,” industry analyst Amber McCullagh said.
Despite that lull in production, the debate over natural gas has never been more intense — a high-stakes battle that could dictate the future terms of gas production when prices rebound.
That fight is playing out in Michigan’s Legislature as well as the courts. Lawmakers have a spate of bills to consider that put restrictions on hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” One citizens’ group based in Charlevoix is trying to give voters the option of banning the practice outright. A new lawsuit filed in Ingham County seeks to force Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality to apply regulations on the books for injection wells to hydraulic fracturing.
And the debate over how best to deal with fracking has caused a divide in the environmental community as well. Efforts to enact a ban on the process are considered unrealistic by some, while anything short of a ban is considered a sellout by others.
Fracking has been practiced in Michigan for decades. By pumping chemical-laced water underground to fracture the rock, energy companies can pump out the natural gas no longer trapped. More recent twists on the technology — such as drilling horizontally after reaching the shale depth and using millions of gallons of water — have increased productivity and opened up new areas in Michigan to development.
“Michigan has a strong stake in continued responsible development and greater use of this homegrown energy source,” said Robert Sumner, director of communications for America’s Natural Gas Alliance, in a written response to questions. “For both power generation and transportation, natural gas is a far cleaner alternative than the dominant forms of energy we use today.That means cleaner air in Michigan communities.”