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Fractured

Patrick Sullivan - December 12th, 2011  

Fissures in group over proposal to regulate natural gas drilling


Ellis Boal resigned from Don’t Frack Michigan in protest.

The anti-fracking movement in Northern Michigan is cracking like a deep shale formation after some members of an environmental group supported legislation that calls for stricter regulation and a moratorium on hydraulic fracking.

Two members of Don’t Frack Michigan – including one who was a board member and in charge of the group’s website – resigned in protest after other members of the group endorsed House Bills 5151 and 5150, legislation that among other things calls for a moratorium while the state conducts studies about the natural gas drilling process.

Ellis Boal and LuAnne Kozma started a new group earlier this month, Ban Michigan Fracking, a group committed to an outright ban of the practice, even as members of the Don’t Frack Michigan say they remain committed, if more pragmatically, to a ban of fracking in the state.

Boal said.

Meadows said his position is more nuanced; he said he would support a ban if studies found safe drilling was not possible.

Kozma, of Novi, got involved with Don’t Frack Michigan, a Petoskey-based group, because she is an activist for public parks. She realized that some people might be swayed into supporting natural gas drilling because of the possible windfall widespread drilling could mean for the Natural Resources Trust Fund, money set aside for parks. She said she worried supporters wouldn’t understand the risk drilling poses to the parks and the environment.

Kozma said she doesn’t believe an environmental cause like this calls for pragmatism or a willingness to compromise.

“It’s been done a zilllion times before, and all you get is nothing,” she said. “In this political climate, we have to demand what we want.”

Fracking, or hydrological fracturing, is a controversial method used by natural gas drillers to get at natural gas deep under the earth’s surface. Drillers bore down a mile or more into the earth’s surface and use highly pressurized water, chemicals and sand to blast away deep shale rock and release natural gas.

Opponents say it is dangerous because of the unregulated use of groundwater and chemicals which are pumped deep into the ground.

Recent activity at two well sites in Kalkaska County has mobilized some of the region’s environmentalists just as the main group opposed to fracking in Northern Michigan has unraveled.

‘SOFT POSITION’

Boal and Kozma say they believe anything short of demanding of a ban on fracking in Michigan is unacceptable.

“It’s been a total co-opting,” said Kozma, about Don’t Frack Michigan’s support of the proposed legislation. “They aren’t really fighting fracking. They are seeking a compromise on fracking.”

At a meeting on Dec. 1, members of Don’t Frack Michigan voted 5-1, with Boal casting the lone dissenting vote, to pass a resolution to support the legislation. Boal resigned after the vote.

The resolution said the group supports the legislation because it could bring attention to fracking in Northern Michigan, because it calls for a temporary halt of drilling, because it might be a step toward a full ban, because it questions the exemptions to environmental and water withdrawal regulations afforded to the natural gas industry, and because it would enable a public approval process for drilling permits.

“You really can’t ride those two horses; you can’t be in favor of legislation that will never come to a ban and still be in favor of a ban,” Kozma said. “They are designed to trick people. It looks like they are out to do something good about fracking.”

Boal doesn’t believe the legislation would lead to a ban. The bills were introduced in part by state Rep. Mark Meadows, a Democrat from E. Lansing, and Boal said he talked to Meadows’ aid.

“I asked, ‘What is Rep. Meadows’ view of a ban?’ and she got back to me after a week and said he does not support a ban,”

PAINFUL SPLIT

The disagreement over how to oppose fracking in Northern Michigan is made more difficult because members of both groups still agree on so much.

“Those people are my friends, I’ve worked with them in the past on a variety of issues and I expect to work with them in the future,” Boal said.

Jo Anne Beemon, Boal’s friend and longtime ally, and a member of Don’t Frack Michigan who was criticized for her support of the legislation, agreed.

“I love Ellis, he’s been my friend for a long time. I’m crazy about the guy and this has been difficult,” Beemon said. “He’s a purist. He really, really believes that if you support legislation, then you are against the ban.”

Beemon said she thinks environmentalists should stick together in the face of an opponent like the oil and gas industry.

She said she’s spent the past year working with different groups all committed to the end of fracking.

“We’ve all worked very hard to try to stop and slow the fracking train in Michigan, and there are lots of different ways to get to that point, but we have to work together,” Beemon said.

She said she does not support fracking at all, but she believes the legislation, while it doesn’t call for an outright ban, is a good first step.

“We have to make sure that we don’t pummel each other to death,” she said. “Many times the environmental community hurts itself more than the opposition ever could.”

Beemon said a couple of years ago, when some environmentalists in the region were focused on opposing a biomass plant, she and others touted natural gas as a safe alternative to coal or biomass because they believed what gas industry representatives said.

Beemon said she realizes now that she was wrong and now she believes that while natural gas, unlike coal, may be relatively clean, there is no clean way to get what’s left down there out of the ground.

Now she is completely opposed to fracking.

“We said that because we believed this hype that the energy companies were saying,” she said. “It has to be blasted out of the earth in ways that devastate the environment and present a danger to our children.”

FOR SOME, IT’S PERSONAL

For some, the issue of fracking and how to oppose it is more personal.

Joanne Cromley, another member of Don’t Frack Michigan who supports the legislation, got involved with the group because she was personally affected by the issue.

She says her support of the legislation does not show that she’s been co-opted and has been swayed to support fracking.

Cromley’s home of 16 years sits on 240 acres that she owns in Cheboygan County near Afton. The land is held in a conservation easement through the Little Traverse Conservancy, but the state owns the mineral rights and she learned last year those rights had been leased to Encana Corp., one of the major natural gas drillers operating in Northern Michigan.

Cromley doesn’t know what that means for her land.

She said she remains with Don’t Frack Michigan and remains committed to seeking a ban of fracking, but she supports the legislation because she believes it could buy time and eventually lead to a ban.

“Because it’s so personal for me, I want a total ban, but I think it’s going to take time,” Cromley said. “We all want the same thing. We don’t want our water to be contaminated forever.”

OPPOSITION A SURPRISE

Rep. Meadows, a sponsor of the legislation, said he is surprised the proposal has caused so much division among environmentalists.

He said he is not opposed to a ban on fracking, as Boal said, but that he is for a moratorium first, something he believes has an outside chance in Lansing compared to a ban, which he doesn’t think could even get a hearing “no matter how many times we ask for it.”

“In one sense, the moratorium can build the case for a total fracking ban,” Meadows said. “Once we have a study done, then it will indicate whether there is a way where we can safely do fracking and protect our water supply or not.”

Supporters of the legislation say it is the most pragmatic and realistic measure to take in the face of the prospect of widespread fracking in Michigan, especially in light of the current political climate.

Boal said he doesn’t think in terms of pragmatism.

“That’s not a calculation that I’m used to making,” Boal said. “That’s not how I look at life.”

Indeed, history shows that sending a message has been more important to Boal than results.

Boal has been the Green Party candidate for Charlevoix County prosecutor, Charlevoix County commissioner and U-M regent. His best showing was in the race for prosecutor, when he received 18 percent of the vote. He ran for Congress in 2010 on the Green Party ticket and received 0.9 percent of the vote.

Mike Berkowitz, the Michigan Chapter Organizer for the Sierra Club, said his group supports the legislation because it calls for a moratorium.

He said the moratorium and study will hopefully provide the time and information to determine whether regulated deep-shale fracking can be done safely.

“Right now, we believe the research points toward that it can be done safely, it just needs to be heavily regulated,” Berkowitz said.

 
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