Author: Eric Olson

Fracking: It’s All About the Water

Hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) for oil and gas in Michigan is the subject of scrutiny in the recent Integrated Assessment report series from the University of Michigan’s Graham Sustainability Institute.  The report confirms that the future development of tight shale formations appears to be massive and intensive in size and scope and will require unprecedented quantities of water to explore and produce these reserves.

How are oil and natural gas wells are being developed in fracking?
First a large pad is cleared, then as many as 6 or more wells are drilled on this one pad known as a “resource hub,” Then, several of these “resource hubs” are developed within close proximity to each other. Clusters of these hubs are then widely developed across townships and counties. Over the next several years, just one oil and gas company, Encana, plans to develop as many as 500 hundred wells in Kalkaska County, Michigan. Each resource hub can consume 90 to 180 millions of gallons of fresh water or more. The most recent numbers in Kalkaska County, Michigan—where fracking operations of this intense nature are underway—show that a group of these hubs in close proximity are presently using or plan to use more than 618 million gallons of water. As fracking expands in Kalkaska, reports indicate that number will be in the billions.

How will these unprecedented water withdrawals impact the groundwater and the streams and lakes within the watershed where the fracking is occurring?
The answer is no one knows. Current Michigan DNR and DEQ procedures do not measure the cumulative impact of these numerous wells and resource hubs on a local watershed and the impact on the nearby streams and lakes in that watershed. Each well permit which includes the amount of water withdrawn is approved independent of each other and does not take into account the amount of water withdrawn by the other wells on the pad and nearby hubs. It’s as if the other wells did not exist.

This is deeply concerning when put in the broader context of Michigan groundwater withdrawals. Bridge Magazine recently reported that 12 Michigan counties are already facing groundwater shortages. In light of present groundwater availability concerns, the increased consumption of groundwater for fracking operations will likely exacerbate the situation. Under current DEQ procedures for oil and gas drilling permits, there is no assurance our government can or will adequately protect our groundwater, lakes, and streams from these current and future massive water withdrawals.

What happens to all this water?
To frack the shale gas or oil reserves deep underground, these massive quantities of water are mixed with a cocktail of chemicals, many hazardous and/or known carcinogens, and sand. In Michigan, after a well is fracked, the contaminated water (“flowback”) is not treated, but is transported and disposed of in deep injection wells. What this means is that such massive quantities of water will never return to to the water cycle. We consider this a “consumptive” use of water. Other major concerns include the handling of the contaminated water. And, fracking is exempt from key federal and state regulation, including the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. In short, these massive quantities of water are gone forever after used in the fracking process.

What can be done?
FLOW’s Chairperson, Jim Olson, and Executive Director, Liz Kirkwood, submitted comments to the Graham Institute. To strengthen water resource protections, FLOW recommends that the State of Michigan:

  • Require development plan(s) and generic or cumulative environmental impacts and alternatives as required under the Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA) before a lease or leases and permit or permits are finally approved or denied;
  • Refine and strengthen all aspects of the Michigan Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool (WWAT) and require baseline hydrogeological studies and pump aquifer yield tests; and
  • Encourage cooperation between state regulations and appropriate local regulation of land use, water use, and related activities to address potential local impacts.

To learn more about FLOW’s research and recommendations, please read our Executive Summary or our Full Recommendations submitted by Olson and Kirkwood to the Graham Institute.

For more about FLOW’s work on fracking, visit flowforwater.org/fracking