U-M Technical Reports Examine Hydraulic
Fracturing in Michigan
9/5/2013 - University of Michigan - ANN ARBOR—University
of Michigan researchers today released seven technical reports that
together form the most comprehensive Michigan-focused resource on
hydraulic fracturing, the controversial natural gas and oil
extraction process commonly known as fracking.
The studies, totaling nearly 200 pages, examine seven critical
topics related to the use of hydraulic fracturing in Michigan, with
an emphasis on high-volume methods: technology, geology and
hydrogeology, environment and ecology, public health, policy and
law, economics, and public perceptions.
While considerable natural gas reserves are believed to exist in the
state and high-volume hydraulic fracturing has the potential to help
access them, possible impacts to the environment and to public
health must be addressed, the U-M researchers concluded.
Though modern high-volume hydraulic fracturing is not widely used in
Michigan today, a main premise of the U-M study is that the
technique could become more widespread due to a desire for job
creation, economic growth, energy independence and cleaner fuels.
"There's a lot of interest in high-volume hydraulic fracturing, but
there really isn't much activity at the moment in Michigan," said
John Callewaert, project director and director of integrated
assessment at U-M's Graham Sustainability Institute, which is
overseeing the project.
"That's why now is a good time to do this
These reports conclude the first phase of a
two-year U-M project known formally as the Hydraulic Fracturing in
Michigan Integrated Assessment.
The seven documents—which should not
be characterized or cited as final products of the integrated
assessment—provide a solid informational foundation for the
project's next phase, an analysis of various hydraulic fracturing
That analysis is expected to be completed in
mid-2014 and will be shared with government officials, industry
experts, other academics, advocacy groups and the general public.
"Nothing like this has been done before in Michigan," Callewaert
"Having this comprehensive, state-specific set of reports will
be an invaluable resource that will help guide future
decision-making on this issue—and hopefully will help Michigan avoid
some of the pitfalls encountered in other states."
Conclusions of the reports, which were written by faculty-led,
student-staffed teams from various disciplines, include:
• Technology. In view of the current low price of natural gas, the
high cost of drilling deep shale formations and the absence of new
oil discoveries, it is unlikely that there will be significant
growth of the oil and gas industry in Michigan in the near-term
However, considerable reserves of natural gas are believed
to exist in deep shale formations such as the Utica-Collingwood,
which underlies much of Michigan and eastern Lake Huron and extends
into Ontario, Canada.
• Geology/hydrogeology. A recent flurry of mineral rights
acquisitions in the state associated with exploratory drilling
suggests the potential for growth in natural gas production through
high-volume hydraulic fracturing, though only a handful of such
wells have been drilled to date.
"Michigan is thus in a unique
position to assess the future of high-volume hydraulic fracturing
before the gas boom begins."
• Environment/ecology. Potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on
the environment are significant and include increased erosion and
sedimentation, increased risk of aquatic contamination from chemical
spills or equipment runoff, habitat fragmentation and resulting
impacts on aquatic and terrestrial organisms, loss of stream
riparian zones, and reduction of surface waters available to plants
and animals due to the lowering of groundwater levels.
• Public health. Possible hazards in the surrounding environment
include impaired local and regional air quality, water pollution and
degradation of ecosystems.
Possible hazards in nearby communities
include increased traffic and motor vehicle accidents, stress
related to risk perception among residents, and boomtown-associated
effects such as a strained health care system and road degradation.
• Policy/law. The state is the primary source of law and policy
governing hydraulic fracturing in Michigan. The operator of a
high-volume hydraulically fractured well must disclose the hazardous
constituents of chemical additives to the state Department of
Environmental Quality for each additive within 60 days of well
completion. Unlike most other states, DEQ does not require operators
to report to FracFocus.org, a nationwide chemical disclosure
• Economics. The gas extraction industry creates employment and
income for Michigan, but the employment effects are modest compared
with other industries and not large enough to "make or break" the
state's economy. In the future, the number of technical jobs in the
industry will likely increase, while less-skilled laborer positions
• Public perceptions. A slight majority of Michigan residents
believe the benefits of fracking outweigh the risks, but significant
concerns remain about the potential impacts to human health, the
environment and groundwater quality.
The public tends to view the
word "fracking" as the entirety of the natural gas development
process, from leasing and permitting, to drilling and well
completion, to transporting and storing wastewater and chemicals.
Industry and regulatory agencies hold a much narrower definition
that is limited to the process of injecting hydraulic fracturing
fluids into a well. These differences in perceived meaning can lead
to miscommunications that ultimately increase mistrust among
In fracking, water, sand and chemicals (in a mix known as hydraulic
fracturing fluid) are injected under high pressure deep underground
to crack sedimentary rocks, such as shale, and free trapped natural
gas or oil.
Though the process has been used for more than half a
century to improve well production, recent technical advances have
helped unlock vast stores of previously inaccessible natural gas and
oil, resulting in a boom in some parts of the United States.
Chief among the technical advances are directional drilling and
high-volume hydraulic fracturing, which are often used together.
directional drilling, the well operator bores vertically down to the
rock formation, then follows the formation horizontally.
High-volume fracking—the focus of recent attention and public
concern—is defined by the state of Michigan as a well that uses more
than 100,000 gallons of hydraulic fracturing fluid.
an Olympic-size swimming pool holds about 660,000 gallons of water.
Since the late 1940s, an estimated 12,000 gas and oil wells have
been drilled in Michigan using hydraulic fracturing, without any
reported contamination issues. Most of those wells have been
relatively shallow vertical wells that each used about 50,000
gallons of water.
But recently, a small number of deep, directionally drilled,
high-volume hydraulically fractured wells have been completed in the
northern part of the Lower Peninsula.
Those wells sometimes use
several million gallons of water, and one Michigan well required
more than 20 million gallons.
Since 2010, when the Petoskey Pioneer Well spurred interest in
high-volume hydraulically fractured wells in Michigan, 19 such wells
are known to have been completed in the state, according to Sara
Gosman, a lecturer at the U-M Law School and author of the technical
report on policy/law.
In the public perceptions report, authors Kim Wolske and Andrew
Hoffman of the U-M Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise
note that chemical additives in high-volume hydraulic fracturing
fluids "remain a primary point of contention for many stakeholders
Many nonprofits and concerned citizens stress the
point that operators of high-volume wells are not required to report
the composition of those fluids to the state until 60 days after the
hydraulic fracturing event.
The often-repeated concern is that if a spill were to occur,
responders would not be as well-prepared as they would have been if
the fluid composition had been known beforehand, Wolske and Hoffman
Though groundwater contamination is often cited as a top concern,
surface contamination from spills and improper disposal of waste
fluids likely carries the greatest risk for harmful water-quality
impacts, due to proximity to potable water resources, according to
the geology/hydrogeology report written by Brian Ellis, assistant professor in
the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
When a well is fracked, the fluid is injected into rock formations
to create cracks and to prop them open.
Of the total volume of
hydraulic fracturing fluids injected into a well, amounts varying
from 10 percent to 70 percent may return to the surface as "flowback
water" after the pressure is reduced and gas or oil begin to flow
toward the wellhead.
In Michigan high-volume hydraulically fractured wells, the average
amount of flowback water returning to the surface is about 37
percent of injected volumes, according to the Ellis report.
The flowback water is highly saline and can contain elevated levels
of heavy metals and naturally occurring radioactive elements, in
addition to methane and the original chemical additives in the
In Michigan, common hydraulic fracturing fluid
additives include ethylene glycol, hydrochloric acid, isopropyl
alcohol, methanol and ammonium persulfate, according to the Ellis
"However, since in Michigan all flowback is disposed of by deep-well
injection and it is not allowed to sit in open pits, the risk of
this type of contamination will be lower than in other states
without such disposal opportunities and regulations," Ellis wrote.
On the topic of potential water contamination, the
environment/ecology report notes that Michigan's dense,
interconnected aquatic ecosystems (streams, rivers, lakes, inland
and coastal wetlands) and the groundwater aquifers to which they are
linked are of particular concern.
The connectivity between surface
and groundwater bodies "can lead to impacts distant from, as well as
close to, drilling sites," according to the report by G. Allen
Burton, professor in the School of Natural Resources and Environment
and director of the U-M Water Center, and Knute Nadelhoffer,
professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and director of the
U-M Biological Station.
The potential migration of methane, the main component of natural
gas, into groundwater reservoirs has also received a lot of
But the probability of significant methane leakage associated with
deep-shale drilling involving hydraulic fracturing in Michigan "is
quite low provided that best practices are adhered to," according to
the U-M report on hydraulic fracturing technologies written by John
Wilson, a consultant to the U-M Energy Institute, and Johannes
Schwank, professor of chemical engineering.
The greatest challenge to understanding the potential public health
risks of hydraulic fracturing in Michigan is the lack of
state-specific data, according to Niladri Basu, author of the public
health technical report and a former faculty member at the U-M
School of Public Health.
While thousands of hydraulically fractured
wells have been drilled in Michigan, the potential public health
risks related to these facilities have been poorly documented, Basu
For example, while operators of high-volume fracking wells are
required to disclose the contents of their hydraulic fracturing
fluids, operators of the 12,000 or so low-volume wells in the state
"There needs to be much greater understanding of what
chemicals are being used in every well, with information related to
volumes, amounts, disposal plans, etc., made available," Basu wrote.
The U-M hydraulic fracturing study is expected to cost at least
$600,000 and is being funded by U-M through its Graham
Sustainability Institute, Energy Institute and Risk Science Center.
State regulators, oil and gas industry representatives, staffers
from environmental nonprofits, and peer reviewers provided input to
the technical reports, and more than 100 public comments were
In addition to the study authors mentioned above, the technical
report authors include Roland Zullo, assistant research scientist,
U-M Institute for Research on Labor, Employment and the Economy
Please note that public comments will not be used to revise the
technical reports. Rather, submitted comments will be used with the
technical reports to inform the integrated assessment to be
completed during the second phase of the project.
WYPDES Coalbed Methane Permits