Michigan’s top field officer defends hydraulic fracturing

‘Natural gas is one of the cleanest energies you can burn’

 

by BETH ALTENA

 

As the Rockford Squire has been publishing articles about the practice of hydraulic fracturing, we have received plenty of comments from readers from as far away as New York City. Even locally, plenty of people have commented that they are afraid of the dangers of the practice and that more study should be done before companies are allowed to use the practice in gas and oil mining.

We have spoken to Michigan Department of Environmental Quality experts in the industry, to a man who is in the energy industry and now to Rick Henderson, the Field Operations Supervisor in the state’s office of Oil, Gas and Mining. The following is the information from that most recent interview.

Henderson was kind enough to address the attacks on hydraulic fracturing by readers that were published in the Squire’s last few issues. Hydraulic fracturing is the process by which water is used to fracture deep underground shale foundations in order to release oil and gas trapped in the shale formations, allowing gas and oil to be collected.

“Natural gas is one of the cleanest energies you can burn,” he stated. He said detractors of the practice of hydraulic fracturing often point to other states when warning that hydraulic fracturing is dangerous. They do that, Henderson said, because Michigan has such a good record without incidents that can be accurately attributed to the practice. The industry is closely monitored by the State. There have been 60,000 oil and gas wells in Michigan since 1925.

Active wells include 4,500 oil wells, 11,000 gas wells, 1,300 water injection and disposal wells and 3,000 gas storage wells. The state regulators authority covers the location and spacing of wells, drilling and construction, well completion (including hydraulic fracturing), production operations, waste and emissions management and plugging and restoration. In short, Henderson stated, the entire process.

A common complaint detractors bring up is the danger of releasing methane gas into the environment, which they state will significantly impact global warming. Henderson said methane release doesn’t happen because the gas is burned in “flares” that can be seen on wells. These methane-burning systems are Completion Combustion Devices. Images of methane-contaminated water making it possible for residential drinking water to burn date from the 1960s when the State published a pamphlet warning homeowners to be aware of the danger of methane in well water, which had nothing to do with hydraulic fracturing. Henderson said methane is a naturally-occurring gas which can contaminate water wells, but the practice of hydraulic fracturing doesn’t cause methane to contaminate residential drinking water or the environment.

Additionally, here in Michigan, as an alternative to burning off the gas, methane is being collected and put into production pipelines to be used as an energy commercial product. “Instead of burning the gas, which wastes it, you are actually using it,” he said of this practice. The gas is used to heat homes and make electricity.

Henderson said every well that will be hydraulically fractured requires the go-ahead by his division of the state regulatory process and each is evaluated prior to the approval to use hydraulic fracturing. His office of Oil, Gas and Minerals has a field staff of 25 geologies and a staff in Lansing of 13 geologists. The experts for the state monitor onsite and through records, casing and sealing, blowout prevention, reserve pits and site restoration as well as other aspects of the leasing and mining.

A recurring theme is that hydraulic fracturing is a new technology using untested materials in the process, and Henderson told the Squire that this is not true. He stated that hydraulic fracturing was first introduced in Michigan in 1952. Historically wells have been shallow and low volume. Hydraulic fracturing is increasingly used in deep shale reservoirs in conjunction with horizontal drilling.

A recent letter-writer to the Squire stated that the state is ignoring the danger of horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing. When asked about the danger of the practice, Henderson responded “What danger?” He said the practice of sending out horizontal wells from a single surface location is a good one, allowing more oil and gas to be collected from fewer surface disturbances. “There isn’t any added risk to surface water.”

The process of collecting natural gas and oil is not new, even hydraulic fracturing, but it is true that, along with any industry, practices are constantly evolving. Henderson said there is nothing sinister about this, and every industry evolves, usually for the better as improvements are discovered and put into place.

He said two positive the federal and state government have put into place is a system for water withdrawal assessment, which evaluates the impact the removal of water will have on any potential drilling site. “This is the same tool any other large scale water industry uses,” he said. He also said it is not true that water used in hydraulic fracturing is lost to the planet forever.

Water that comes up out of hydraulically fractured wells is mixed with salts millions of years old from “when we used to be an ocean down by the equator.” The detractors of hydraulic fracturing point to this “dirty” water as a point of concern, but Henderson said the oceanic mixture is returned down into the well. Henderson said mining pipes are required to be at least 100 feet into bedrock and 100 feet below any fresh water.

Specific regulations on hydraulic fracturing include the Water Withdrawal Assessment, Water Level Monitoring, Report Fracturing Pressures and Volumes and the submission of material safety data sheets.

Henderson noted that over time, the burning of methane creates water, and a producing well with a methane flare will release water into the atmosphere. Ninety cubic feet of burned methane releases a gallon of water.

Henderson said he knows people have concerns and even fears about the practice despite the fact that wells have been hydraulically fractured for decades. He said movies such as Gasland, which distort the facts, may play a part in this fear. “People grab a hold of things and it becomes important to them. They get afraid.” He said changes in the industry are not the way detractors portray them, as significant and enough to warrant sudden concern. “It’s more like changing from a Model A to a Model T.” He said 80 percent of the wells in the United States have been hydraulically fractured.

frackingimage-1Henderson described what the hydraulic fracturing process looks like. He said a drilling rig comes to the site, and that rig is about 120 feet tall. “The rig comes and then it goes,” he said. There have been no wells in Michigan that have ever been re-fracked. He said the remaining wellhead is about as tall as a person. The well can be as deep as 9,000 feet with the longest at 10,600 feet.

“In Michigan we have very strong regulations,” he stated. Casings are steel and concrete, a very specific and durable type of material that can withstand 10,000 pounds of pressure. Henderson said he knows detractors point to the deteriorating cement in our bridges and other structures to warn of eventual leaks. Unlike cement bridge bases, the pipelines from spent wells are sealed underground and not subject to the fluctuations in heat and cold that do cause cement to break down above ground over time.

One of the Squire letter-writers who said he is originally from Rockford and reads the Squire to keep in touch with his hometown pointed out that the industry causes benzene to be released. Henderson said benzene is a natural ingredient in natural gas. “If you have gas, you have benzene. That’s part of it,” he stated.

Finally, Henderson addressed the accusation that no one benefits from hydraulic fracturing except the gas and oil companies. “Everybody uses hydrocarbons,” he said. “It is a commodity that is essential to every day life for all of us. They produce it as an energy source. We don’t judge an energy source, we regulate it for everyone. It is a commodity that is essential to society.”

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