Natural gas fracking fizzles in Michigan
Fracking, the practice of pumping chemical-laced water underground to fracture the rock, has been practiced in Michigan for decades. (Photo by Heather Rousseau)
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.”
And the battle has already claimed one — sort of. Steven Losher, a 47-year-old Barry County resident, traveled to Lansing on May 8 to watch as the Michigan Department of Natural Resources auctioned off oil and mineral rights to state lands — some of which were near his home.
Losher, who was there because of concerns over fracking in his southwest county, wound up being arrested when he was thought to be part of the Occupy movement that was demonstrating outside.
“When you look at what’s happened in other states … it seems after even cursory research that everywhere horizontal fracking has been occurring, there have been problems,” said Losher, who will be arraigned June 5. “And some of those problems have been hellish.”
A single test well, brought online by Calgary, Alberta-based Encana Corp. in early 2010, was the first domino here, putting the fracking debate in the spotlight. The initial production from that well in Missaukee County — in the natural gas deposit called the Collingwood Shale — brought energy companies to the state, scrambling to secure oil and mineral rights on as much land as possible. The county is east of Cadillac.
But a second test well produced less robust results and the dropping market price for natural gas brought exploratory efforts to a standstill.
“Essentially, producers were victims of their own success,” said McCullagh, a senior analyst of North American gas research at Houston-based Wood Mackenzie.
“Costs for producing natural gas declined significantly and overall production increased rapidly. … As a result, the price for natural gas declined from $12 to $13 per million British thermal unit in 2005 to an average of $4 in 2011.”
Last month, U.S. natural gas prices traded at less than $2 per million British thermal units for the first time since 2002.
The Collingwood Shale roughly spans the northern portion of the Lower Peninsula and reaches in to the easternmost portions of the Upper Peninsula. The gas deposits sit as deep as 10,000 feet below the surface.
Encana’s first well was the initial hydraulic fracturing project to be used in the shale. So far, three wells in Michigan have utilized the horizontal drilling technique.
Seventeen years ago, Joanne Cromley and her husband relocated from the Chicago area to Michigan with a specific goal in mind. They purchased 240 acres of land near Afton, in Cheboygan County, with the intention of letting it “go wild.”
In August 2010, a letter arrived alerting the couple that the state had included their property’s oil and mineral rights in an auction. While the couple owned the land, the state had the right to offer up its drilling rights, creating the possibility a company could come in and mine on their land in pursuit of natural gas.
Today, Cromley serves as the co-chairman of Don’t Frack Michigan — a citizens’ group attempting to ban fracking in the state. The task at-hand, he said, is education and pushing for a no-compromise solution. “I think that a lot of people have been put to sleep in the sense that there are some environmental organizations that say we can do this through regulation,” she said. “I don’t think we can.”
For groups like Don’t Frack Michigan, or the similarly titled Ban Michigan Fracking, the bills currently in the Legislature are eyed with suspicion, if not derision.
LuAnne Kozma is among the Ban Michigan Fracking members collecting petition signatures to place the fracking question before voters. They have until July 9 to collect 322,000 of them in order to have a ban option on the November ballot.
Her grassroots group puts quotes around the word “reform” when discussing the package of proposed laws targeting natural gas extraction. They leave the door to energy companies open for fracking in the future and that, she said, is a risk she isn’t willing to take.
Other groups, including the Michigan Environmental Council, see a future that includes fracking in a tightly regulated environment.
“We all use natural gas,” he said. “This is a product that is part of our everyday lives. To the extent that if falls into that category, we should figure out the best way to deal with it.”
From The Detroit News:
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