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Week of September 9, 2013

U-M technical reports examine hydraulic fracturing in Michigan

University of Michigan researchers last week released seven technical reports that together form the most comprehensive Michigan-focused resource on hydraulic fracturing, the controversial natural gas and oil extraction process commonly known as fracking.

The studies, totaling nearly 200 pages, examine seven critical topics related to the use of hydraulic fracturing in Michigan, with an emphasis on high-volume methods: technology, geology and hydrogeology, environment and ecology, public health, policy and law, economics, and public perceptions.

While considerable natural gas reserves are believed to exist in the state and high-volume hydraulic fracturing has the potential to help access them, possible impacts to the environment and to public health must be addressed, the U-M researchers concluded.

Though modern high-volume hydraulic fracturing is not widely used in Michigan today, a main premise of the U-M study is that the technique could become more widespread due to a desire for job creation, economic growth, energy independence and cleaner fuels.

“There’s a lot of interest in high-volume hydraulic fracturing, but there really isn’t much activity at the moment in Michigan,” said John Callewaert, project director and the director of integrated assessment at U-M’s Graham Sustainability Institute, which is overseeing the project. “That’s why now is a good time to do this assessment.”

These reports conclude the first phase of a two-year U-M project known formally as the Hydraulic Fracturing in Michigan Integrated Assessment. The seven documents provide a solid informational foundation for the project’s next phase, an analysis of various hydraulic fracturing policy options. That analysis is expected to be completed in mid-2014 and will be shared with government officials, industry experts, other academics, advocacy groups and the general public.

Conclusions of the reports, which were written by faculty-led, student-staffed teams from various disciplines, include:

Technology. In view of the current low price of natural gas, the high cost of drilling deep shale formations and the absence of new oil discoveries, it is unlikely that there will be significant growth of the oil and gas industry in Michigan in the near-term future. However, considerable reserves of natural gas are believed to exist in deep shale formations such as the Utica-Collingwood, which underlies much of Michigan and eastern Lake Huron and extends into Ontario, Canada.

Geology/hydrogeology. A recent flurry of mineral rights acquisitions in the state associated with exploratory drilling suggests the potential for growth in natural gas production through high-volume hydraulic fracturing, though only a handful of such wells have been drilled to date. “Michigan is thus in a unique position to assess the future of high-volume hydraulic fracturing before the gas boom begins.”

Environment/ecology. Potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on the environment are significant and include increased erosion and sedimentation, increased risk of aquatic contamination from chemical spills or equipment runoff, habitat fragmentation and resulting impacts on aquatic and terrestrial organisms, loss of stream riparian zones, and reduction of surface waters available to plants and animals due to the lowering of groundwater levels.

Public health. Possible hazards in the surrounding environment include impaired local and regional air quality, water pollution and degradation of ecosystems. Possible hazards in nearby communities include increased traffic and motor vehicle accidents, stress related to risk perception among residents, and boomtown-associated effects such as a strained healthcare system and road degradation.

Economics. The gas extraction industry creates employment and income for Michigan, but the employment effects are modest compared with other industries and not large enough to “make or break” the state’s economy. In the future, the number of technical jobs in the industry will likely increase, while less-skilled laborer positions will decline.

Public perceptions. A slight majority of Michigan residents believe the benefits of fracking outweigh the risks, but significant concerns remain about the potential impacts to human health, the environment and groundwater quality.

In fracking, water, sand and chemicals (in a mix known as hydraulic fracturing fluid) are injected under high pressure deep underground to crack sedimentary rocks, such as shale, and free trapped natural gas or oil. Though the process has been used for more than half a century to improve well production, recent technical advances have helped unlock vast stores of previously inaccessible natural gas and oil, resulting in a boom in some parts of the United States.

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