Reps from DNR, DEQ explain fracking at town hall meeting

State Representative Pete MacGregor and Rick Henderson look at an actual slice of a well to show the many layers of protection built into every well

Residents well-behaved during discussion

 

By BETH ALTENA

 

Although a Grand Rapids energy company was recently picketed in protest over the local likely use of hydraulic fracturing in obtaining oil and gas from Kent County properties, listeners at a town hall meeting were well-behaved.

Freshman State Representative Peter MacGregor organized the event to allow residents to hear from state agencies about the effects of the technology and answer questions. It took place at Cannon Township Hall on Thursday, October 18. Upcoming sale of oil and gas rights on state land in the area, including the Cannonsburg State Game Area, the Rogue River Recreation Area and the White Pine Trail have caused alarm and several environmental groups have demanded more information or a moratorium on the mining of the properties until they are assured of the safety of a process called hydraulic fracturing or fracking which will likely be used. Hydraulic fracturing is the use of high pressure water to fracture shale and release oil and gas trapped in pockets in the rock.

In addition to MacGregor, Tom Hoand, from the mineral management of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Rick Henderson, a geologist inspector from the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Bill Dule, a geologist inspector from the DEQ attended the meeting.

Hoand said he has been a mineral geologist for 20 years and with the DNR for 13 years. Henderson said he has been in his field for 32 years.

Hoand said Michigan’s lower peninsula is the thirteenth state in the United States for gas production, but still only produces 22 percent of the gas we use. He explained that there are several types of property rights where oil and gas production is concerned. Gas and oil rights on state land is managed by the DNR, and these rights can be on state land, federal land and other land. Standard leasing for mineral rights is five years. The price paid for leasing from energy companies can vary with an historical high in 2010 of $5,500 an acre.

He explained that companies have a one-month period of time to nominate properties for mineral right leasing after which the state experts review the nomination to see if the property is eligible. He said during this time private property owners are usually contacted about leasing their land for mining.

According to Hoand, during the time between 1911 and 1998 land that came back into the possession of the state often had the mineral rights severed from the surface rights, a process that no longer happens. Because of this it is possible for landowners to own property but not be aware that their mineral rights are severed—not owned by them. He advised anyone with concerns to contact the State of Michigan to ask if their property rights are severed and if so, to arrange to repurchase the mineral rights to their land.

It was also explained that some properties are not appropriate for mining, and such parcels would have the nomination be denied. Examples of this are critical dunes, Great Lake property, property with a bald eagle nest on the site or other restrictions.

As an aside, Hoand explained that the historic high prices of 2010, a total of $178,195,014 (that’s $178 million), equaled as much as the sale of mineral rights in the state to date since the inception of the program. So far in 2012, sales of mineral rights on land controlled by the state equal $35,916,318 (that’s $35 million) with funds going to the Michigan Natural Resource Trust Fund.

The trust fund uses the money to give grants to communities for projects improving parks and recreation areas. To date all 83 counties in Michigan have received grants and together the grants total over a billion dollars. Kent County is in the top three in the state in receiving grants and has received $4,521,104 for fish and game improvements and $31,395,214 to enhance state parks. Michigan currently has 1,511,265 acres under 14,917 active leases.

“To put a play together you need land. The land we are offering is non-developmental, so they have to go through private land owners,” Hoand said. A standard drilling unit is 40 acres although the majority of wells are one well per eighty acres. Long wells can service a land area as large as 1,200 acres. He said drilling is designed not to be wasteful, not waste resources used to obtain gas and oil, but also not to waste the gas and oil resources that are down there. “You have to produce at a sustainable rate,” he said.

Hoand made reference to an oil producing formation that was first discovered in 2010 and noted that Rockford has an oil field under it. He said property owners can look at DNR maps online that show which properties have severed gas and mineral rights. He noted that property owners would want to request the purchase of severed rights on their land before the gas and oil companies become interested in the rights.

Henderson took up the second half of the evening’s discussion, noting that once the mining rights have been sold, the DNR is out of the process and the DEQ takes over as the agency that assures rules are followed. He said hydraulic fracturing has been taking place since the 1950s and began as a pilot program in the 1940s. He said 80 percent of the gas and oil wells in the United States are being hydraulically fractured. In the DEQ it is the Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals which oversees the process. He said every step of the process is policed, from the number of layers of protection in the well itself to the type of concrete used in the well casing.

Henderson said there are typically several areas of concern about the process that the public worries about: energy policy, migration of gas or fracking liquid, water use, management of flowback water, surface spills, chemical additives, and earthquakes. He said it is ironic that in college he learned about the injection of fluid into fault lines purposefully to cause small earthquakes. The purpose of causing small earthquakes was to relieve the pressure and avoid the damage of large, catastrophic earthquakes.

He noted that in Michigan “We are very lucky to have basins of briny water already from millions of years ago.” These basins are extremely vast and a perfect reservoir to deposit flowback, the liquid that comes back out of a well. Henderson said when the glaciers came through Michigan, it was a lush and vibrant environment that was bulldozed under the glacial ice. The ensuing decay is the cause of the natural gas in the shale and rock under the state. He stated that the amount of fluid used to frack a well depends on the depths of the oil and gas deposits and that a shallow well could use 50,000 gallons and a deeper well could use five million gallons.

“How much is five million gallons?” he asked. “It is the amount of water used by New York City in seven minutes. It is the amount of water used to irrigate eight acres of corn, it is ten Olympic-sized swimming pools or three inches of rain over one square mile of land.”

Earthquakes have been triggered by the injection of backflow into waste disposal wells in other states. “There is not much risk here because we are not putting it into a place without water and it is not under pressure.” He reiterated that hydraulic fracturing has never impacted groundwater in Michigan and has not caused adverse impact to the environment or the public. He said the state has very strict rules and controls.

As an example of avoiding environmental disturbance he said in Grayling a proposed well was relocated because of Kirtland warbler nesting habitat and in another case a former lake in Roscommon County, which is still often wetlands, caused another proposed well to be moved a quarter of a mile away. “The people were happy, the environment was happy.”

Henderson fielded questions from the audience, and one person asked how the state can monitor the chemicals used in fracking when the industry does not reveal exactly which chemicals are used and how much.

“When you look at what kind of chemicals they are and what they are used for you can test for that type of chemical. What is the recipe? We know it is glycol. We know it is alcohol and can scan for all types of alcohol.” He said the briny deposit wells are 1,000 or more feet below fresh water and both the Environmental Protection Agency and DEQ require a containment layer of material, such as a clay layer, be between any disposal wells and fresh water.

He ended by saying it is impossible to know how big the play under Michigan will turn out to be and noted that, by using long wells, the industry is able to harvest the gas and oil with fewer wells.

 

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