The Fracking Debate
April 26, 2015A Global Discussion Goes Local
Cheap natural gas and slowed industry activity have quieted the fracking debate in northern Michigan recently, but that calm may soon be over. In March, The Sierra Club declared fracking should be banned in Michigan, and another group seeking to end the practice plans to collect signatures to put an anti-fracking initiative on the ballot in 2016.
Now, a more nuanced fight over oil and gas drilling is heating up between two groups who don’t oppose fracking, but who disagree over whether it can be regulated at the local level.
THE STAGE: TOWNSHIP MEETINGS
Here’s how this dispute has played out in recent months.
Jim Olson and Liz Kirkwood of Traverse City-based nonprofit FLOW (For The Love Of Water) educate township officials throughout the state about ways they can control oil and gas operations in their backyards.
Olson and Kirkwood’s efforts are countered by John Simaz, an independent energy consultant who blogs for Energy In Depth, an oil and gas lobbying group. Simaz tells these same township officials that state law preempts local regulation and what FLOW proposes they do within their townships is actually illegal.
Simaz believes that if townships adopt FLOW’s ordinances, they could even face costly lawsuits.
It’s a back-and-forth that mirrors the fracking debate at large. One side decries the destruction of water, the threat of contamination, and the danger unconventional drilling poses to the climate. The other side maintains that attacks on fracking are baseless and that natural gas is the best answer to our near-future energy needs.
The contentious debate was focused by the divisive 2010 movie "Gasland," which demonized what’s commonly known as fracking – high-volume horizontal fracturing, a drilling innovation that uses millions of gallons of water mixed with a slurry of sand and chemicals to release natural gas from deep shale.
Northern Michigan seemed on the verge of a fracking boom in 2012 until several exploratory wells proved too expensive for the natural gas yield they returned.
That, coupled with low natural gas prices, put Michigan fracking on pause. If natural gas prices skyrocket, however, the debate could reignite.
Jim Peters, operations manager at NorthStar Energy in Traverse City, said change would come slowly in the state because of specific geological challenges that makes fracking so expensive here.
"Here in Michigan, if it does ever move forward, it will be at a snail’s pace," he said.
CONSPIRACY AGAINST FOSSIL FUELS?
The slow-down in current activity hasn’t lessened the cry from certain organizations to end fracking.
The Sierra Club issued a statement on March 31 calling for a fracking ban. The Committee to Ban Fracking in Michigan plans to circulate a petition that would ban horizontal drilling altogether.
FLOW, on the other hand, doesn’t seek to end fracking, but they want the practice better regulated. Peters, who has worked in oil and gas for 34 years, believes that all fracking opponents – no matter what FLOW says – actually want to eliminate fossil fuels.
"You have people that have, in my mind, certain beliefs or wants; most of these people want us to quit using fossil fuels, period," Peters said. Peters believes that people he calls "fractivists" are hypocrites who ignore the prosperity the oil and gas industry has brought to the country.
"There’s an 80 percent chance in Michigan that you’re heating with natural gas or propane, and you’re probably burning hydrocarbons in your vehicle, whether you’re electric or not, but you want everybody to quit using fossil fuels," he said. "It’s hypocrisy when you want to shut down an industry, right now, when we don’t have an answer for how we’re going to power this country."
Kirkwood explained that FLOW is not anti-fracking or anti-fossil fuel and she said she supports a well-regulated oil and gas industry.
"We have a rich oil and gas history up here in the north. We have the Antrim Shale development and we’re not here to make any opinions about the validity of it – we need oil and gas," she said. "The spin on this whole story is absolutely skewed. At FLOW, we’re trying to empower local communities to figure out what they can do."
CITIES CAN CONTROL, TOWNSHIPS CAN’T
Olson and Kirkwood explained they decided to study how townships could regulate oil and gas when they realized state zoning law on the issue was out of sync with the times. They questioned the industry’s position that locals had no say in what went on in their backyards.
Oil and gas was protected from local zoning regulation in the 1940s, largely through a zoning exception in townships, where few people lived at that time. In cities, where most people lived, the industry was subject to regulation.
Today, some townships are as densely populated as cities.
"Now, townships have as much population and homes as cities – 60, 70, 80 years later – and now we have a problem because the balance that was struck then doesn’t exist any more," Olson said.
Olson and Kirkwood believe there are two ways townships can regulate – through police powers and through zoning.
"The state and the oil industry is going around telling people, they have from day one, "˜Oh, you don’t have any power at the local level to regulate it,’" Olson said. "It’s a complete misstatement to say that local governments don’t have power."
Townships regulate nuisances through police power. They are allowed to regulate something that’s loud or dusty or potentially dangerous, even if it’s an oil well, Olson contends.
Olson and Kirkwood also believe zoning regulation can be applied to everything around an oil pad except the actual hole in the ground. If correct, this would mean townships can regulate pump stations, pipelines, storage pits, chemical mixing zones and transport routes just as they can any other special use.
FIGHT OVER TOWNSHIP REGULATION
Simaz believes that if townships adopt FLOW’s recommendations, the ordinances would scare away oil and gas developers and eliminate economic opportunities.
"You start compiling ordinances like that and, after enough of them, the industry will look at it and say, "˜We can’t develop these resources if those ordinances are in place,’" Simaz said.
Not only would the ordinances scare away business from the industry, Simaz also believes they are illegal. He cited Linvingston County’s Conway Township where, after FLOW’s presentation, the county’s legal department recommended against the ordinances because the township wouldn’t have the resources to enforce and fight legal challenges.
He also notes that the Michigan Township Association has spoken against the ordinances, offering the opinion that state regulation is sufficient and townships lack the authority to regulate.
The question has yet to be settled by a court.
"The MTA, they’re very conservative, and their lawyers advised them that townships do nothing," Kirkwood explained.
Kirkwood believes oil and gas lobbyists met privately with Conway Township officials after the FLOW presentation and scared them away from their recommendations.
"One supervisor was very concerned," Kirkwood said. "He said, "˜Where are you getting your funding?’ It was like the black helicopters were coming out and all sorts of conspiracy theories."
A $5,000 QUESTION
Simaz notes that Conway Township paid FLOW $5,000 to make their presentation. Simaz said he is outraged that taxpayer money has been used to support one side of what he sees as a partisan debate.
"I’ve been to many of these township meetings where these groups come in, they are pushing their agenda and they deliberately manipulate, they deliberately mischaracterize the industry," he said.
Simaz believes townships should invite industry or regulators to explain the projects.
"Let’s pay $5,000 to an oil and gas company to come in and explain the operation. What’s going to happen then?" he said.
Kirkwood said Simaz mischaracterizes what FLOW does.
"They claim that we are spreading misinformation and it’s outrageous. This verges on slander, honestly," Kirkwood said. "Conway Township reached out to FLOW. They sought out our services."
She explained FLOW researches a township’s ordinances in order to give them a menu of options for what they could do to regulate oil and gas in their area. She said FLOW was recently awarded a grant that will allow them to offer their services to townships free of charge.
"In Conway Township, oil and gas companies started just drilling on private property and there were multiple calls from many, many residents," Kirkwood said. "We had a number of citizen groups come to us and they said they would like our assistance."
State regulators and industry representatives will claim neighbors are powerless, so it’s important people to have somewhere else to turn, Kirkwood said.
"FLOW is really one of the only organizations in the state of Michigan providing this level of technical assistance to communities," Kirkwood said.
A FRACKING CASE STUDY IN KALKASKA
Among the most disputed issues is whether fracking poses a threat to groundwater in the area of a well. Christopher Grobbel, an environmental scientist who has studied the impact of fracking wells on groundwater, and who works with FLOW to help townships draft and implement ordinances, said the problem with public understanding in this debate is that people want black and white answers and, with fracking, those don’t exist.
One example of this grey area is a fracking well in Kalkaska County’s Excelsior Township. A Michigan State University study conducted for a pro-environment group found that the well drilled to take millions of gallons of water for the fracking process may have reduced the flow of the upper Manistee River.
"The volume of water extracted could have a significant impact in dewatering tributaries in that region," Grobbel said. "It didn’t show that directly; it showed it indirectly as a potential – as a real potential." Peters believes that conclusion is ridiculous. He says the stream was too far away from the well and the drawdown occurred from a deep aquifer that should have no impact on water running on the surface. Peters said seasonal water table fluctuations are a better explanation for what was found in the study.
"Not only is it virtually impossible for that to happen, in this situation, the upper reaches, the upper Manistee River so-called stream, has been known to dry up from time to time, during dry weather events," he said. "It’s very shallow at the very upper reaches, it’s very wide, it’s barely inches deep."
Olson believes the state and the industry don’t collect enough data to be able to understand the effect a massive water withdrawal has on an area because they don’t require hydrological studies.
"What’s the flow of the stream where you’re pumping next to? And is the water you’re taking for the groundwater connected to that stream? You don’t know," Olson said. "Does the DEQ require you to do that study? No. That’s the real missing link."
DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel said hydrological studies are unnecessary because the state requires a water withdrawal assessment and monitoring throughout a project.
He said the MSU study was debunked because the aquifer that was used was found to be separate from the stream.