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Report: State regulations inadequate for big fracking operations

A new report released by the Graham Sustainability Institute looks at Michigan's options for regulating hydraulic fracturing of natural gas in Michigan.

The report says current regulations are written for smaller wells drilled to a depth of 800 to 2,000 feet, using about 50,000 gallons of water each. But high-volume fracking, using wells drilled as deep as 10,000 feet, could take off in Michigan if economic conditions become favorable for it. There are currently only 13 high-volume wells in Michigan, compared to 12,000 conventional shallow wells.

John Callewaert, Integrative Assessment Center Director of the Graham Institute, says the report can be a resource for legislators and environmental organizations as they plan for high-volume fracking activity. 

"The focus is on high-volume hydraulic fracturing, and there’s currently very limited activity of that nature in Michigan," Callewaert says. "There was a couple years ago much more interest and speculation about a high level of activity we might see in Michigan. I think the low price of natural gas is holding off some of that interest."

The state has already proposed rule changes covering reporting, water quality sampling, and disclosure of chemical additives. The institute compiled the report in order to review the strengths, weaknesses, and likely outcomes of the various regulatory options. 

Fracking uses a fluid made of water, sand, and chemicals to crack sedimentary rocks deep underground, freeing trapped natural gas or oil. Wastewater from the process is currently managed by deep-well injection to keep it separate from underwater drinking water supplies. 

Michigan currently requires operators of fracking wells to disclose the chemicals used in fracking fluids up to 60 days after the well is completed. One of the options considered in the Institute's report is to require well operators to disclose a list of chemicals prior to the start of fracking activities.

The report proposes testing of ground and surface water quality near fracking wells, which is currently not required in Michigan. It also proposes a requirement for emergency response plans and evaluates the pros and cons of a moratorium on high-volume fracking. A moratorium would allow time to carry out impact studies and design appropriate regulations. 

The report, which is in draft stage, was a combined effort of the Graham Sustainability Institute, the Energy Institute, the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise and the Risk Science Center. The report is available at the Institute's web site, and public comments will be accepted through March 20.

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