THERE IS AN ongoing debate regarding the preferred sources of fuel needed to meet America’s
future electricity needs. The United States has been dubbed the “Saudi Arabia
of coal” due to its extensive coal reserves, and approximately 60 percent of
the electricity generated in Michigan comes from coal-fired power plants. Coal
has increasingly come under attack from environmental groups, however, because
they believe emissions from coal-fired power plants contribute to global
warming. If less coal is used in the future to provide electricity, that energy
must be replaced in order to provide reliable sources of electricity necessary
to power America’s economy.
Nuclear power is
another primary source of energy used to power base-load power plants. But such
endeavors bring high capital cost, which can run into billions of dollars; in
addition, the extensive time delays — often exceeding a decade or more — to acquire
the necessary building permits are significant obstacles to replacing
coal-fired power plants with nuclear ones.
energy advocates point to non-traditional sources of energy such as wind, solar
and biomass as the wave of the future in supplying America’s growing energy
needs. Such methods, however, currently only supply a tiny fraction of the
electricity demanded, and although these sources will likely increase in the
future, they will not replace the loss of coal as the primary energy source to
foreseeable future, natural gas is the source of fuel most likely to replace
lost base-load electric generating capacity from retired coal-fired power
plants. North America has abundant reserves of natural gas — recent estimates
indicate there are sufficient reserves of natural gas to supply all of
America’s energy needs for the remainder of the century. Natural gas fields are
scattered throughout the country, but formations that are the ripest for
hydraulic fracturing are the Marcellus Shale, which covers parts of Ohio,
Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York; the Antrim Shale in Michigan; and the
Barnett Shale in Texas.
According to the
U.S. Energy Information Administration, America imported about 12 percent of
the natural gas it consumed in 2009 — the lowest percentage since the 1990s. In
2009, natural gas supplied about 23 percent of the total electric power
generated in the United States while coal supplied 44 percent and nuclear about
The price of
natural gas to heat homes and fuel power plants has been decreasing due to
increased supply and the mounting price of oil. Like coal, natural gas has a
significant advantage from a national security standpoint as reserves are
located here in North America and do not have to be imported from countries
that may not be friendly to the United States. Natural gas used as a fuel to
generate electricity also has an environmental benefit, as it emits
approximately one-third less CO2 emissions than coal.
The key to developing
natural gas fields in Michigan and around the nation is the utilization of
hydraulic fracturing technology. Shale gas development has been rapidly
expanding in North America in recent years. Unconventional natural gas
extraction methods, including hydraulic fracturing, made up 42 percent of
domestic gas production in 2007 and are expected to increase to 64 percent by
2020. Hydraulic fracturing has been utilized for more than 60 years. Horizontal
drilling has been used commercially since the 1980s, but until recently has not
been used widely for extracting natural gas from shale rock formations.
The combination of these two technologies has greatly expanded the
availability of commercially developable natural gas fields in Michigan and
What Is Hydraulic Fracturing?
The process of
hydraulic fracturing creates fissures, or fractures, in shale formations which
allow natural gas to flow horizontally to drilled bores and ultimately to a
vertically drilled bore and wellhead. The fractures are created by pumping
water at high pressure into the rock reservoir. Silica sand is added to the
water to hold the fractures open. Several chemicals are typically added to
reduce friction (which allows higher pumping rates with less pressure) and
increase the viscosity of the water. In addition, chemicals are added to
prevent microorganism growth, to prevent corrosion of metal pipes and to remove
drilling mud damage near the wellbore.
Once the pumping
pressure has been released after the hydraulic fracturing process, water-based
fracturing fluid flows back through the well casing to the wellhead and may be
mixed with water from the rock formation., 
- Water Use — Hydraulic
fracturing wells require the use of considerably higher volumes of water than
do traditional gas wells. In the Antrim Shale formation in Michigan, a traditional
gas well requires a one-time use of 50,000 gallons of water. It is estimated
that a horizontally drilled, hydraulically fractured well requires a one-time
use of 5 million gallons of water, or approximately the amount of water that a
1,000 megawatt coal-fired power plant uses in 12 hours., 
- Contaminated Water Management
— Flowback water typically contains small concentrations of chemicals used in
the hydraulic fracturing process as well as naturally occurring salts (brines)
and in some cases very small quantities of naturally occurring radioactive
material such as radium. The contaminated flowback water must be properly
treated and handled in order to prevent adverse public health or environmental
- Migration of Gas or Fracture
Fluids — A major concern is that gas or chemicals used in the hydraulic
fracturing process could migrate and contaminate aquifers used for drinking
water. At depths of about 2,000 feet or less, fractures are horizontal due to
the natural stress of the rock which serves to confine gas and fluids to the
gas reservoir. At greater depth, fractures may occur vertically but are
confined by the overlying gas reservoir. In cases where groundwater
contamination has occurred due to migration of hydraulic fracturing fluids, it is
almost always due to improper well construction rather than hydraulic
- Surface Spills — Spills of
chemicals or flowback water can adversely impact public health and the
- Identification of Chemical
Additives — Concerns have been raised that the public is not aware of what
chemicals are being used in the hydraulic fracturing process. Companies
generally consider this information proprietary.
- Earthquakes — Concerns have
been raised that hydraulic fracturing could potentially trigger earthquakes in
some localities. The Dallas-Fort Worth region in Texas experienced 11 mini
quakes during November and December 2008. Seismologist Brian Slump of Southern
Methodist University analyzed data from the 11 earthquakes and determined the origin
was located on a geologic fault located about 15,000 feet below the surface.
Since 2002, about one dozen hydraulic fractured wells have been drilled in that
vicinity. Slump commented that it is possible that stresses on this old fault
could trigger earthquakes. Shaopeng Huang from the University of Michigan,
however, urges caution saying, “A causal link between a given earthquake
with a particular borehole is debatable.” The subject of hydraulic fracturing
causing mini earthquakes remains controversial.
Regulation of Hydraulic Fracturing in Michigan
The Geologic Survey
section of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is responsible for
regulating oil and gas drilling and production, including hydraulic fracturing,
in the state. The state of Michigan has a history of enacting and enforcing
strict regulations on oil and gas development. State oil and gas regulatory
officials have had considerable experience regulating the oil and gas industry
due to extensive development over the years of the Antrim geologic formation in
the northern region of the state.
of aquifers used for drinking water is the major concern regarding the use of
hydraulic fracturing technology to extract natural gas. Regulations to prevent
contamination of drinking water from oil and gas extraction in Michigan include
the following requirements:
- Each oil and gas well must
have a casing and cementing plan that will effectively contain gas and other
fluids within the wellbore.
- Surface casing is required to
be set at least 100 feet into the bedrock and 100 feet below any fresh water
zones and cemented from the base of the casing to the ground surface.
- Prior to hydraulic
fracturing, an additional string of production casing must be set to the depth
of the reservoir and cemented in place.
- Hydraulic fracturing is
prohibited within 50 feet of the base of the surface casing for wells
located in shallow reservoirs.
- Flowback water is treated as
an oil and gas waste and must be contained in steel tanks and transported to
disposal wells where they are injected into deep rock layers that are isolated
from fresh water supplies.
- Disposal wells are licensed
by both DEQ and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and periodic testing
is required to ensure well integrity.
- Secondary containment is
required under tanks, wellheads and other areas where spills are most likely to
- Any spill must be immediately
reported and cleaned up according to DEQ requirements.
- Material Safety Data Sheets
must be posted wherever chemical additives are stored, transported or used.
These MSDS contain information on the chemical class and potential health and
environmental effects of the chemical additives. In the event of a significant
spill or health hazard, the DEQ has the legal authority to obtain the necessary
details on chemical composition and concentrations.
Energy production and use will continue to play an
important role in Michigan’s future. Michigan is blessed with abundant natural
resources, including considerable oil and gas deposits, and the state has a
history of both successful regulation and development of renewable and
non-renewable natural resources including oil and gas. The oil and gas industry
is a significant contributor to the state’s economy, especially in the northern
part of the Lower Peninsula. Many northern Michigan communities have benefited
from relatively high-paying jobs associated with development and support of oil
and gas wells.
To date, only one
gas well has been developed in the state utilizing hydraulic fracturing
technology. The potential for future development of hydraulically fractured gas
wells in Michigan is currently unknown, but there is considerable potential for
extracting large quantities of natural gas from the Antrim Shale utilizing the
new technology. Michigan also has an advantage in the development of
hydraulically fractured gas wells because of an abundant water supply that is
not available in the more arid states.
The development of
gas wells using hydraulic fracturing technology poses some environmental risk.
The primary environmental and public health goal should be to ensure that
drinking water sources are protected from contamination. Michigan officials
have the task of protecting the state’s natural resources and public health, as
well as promoting the development of energy sources that have the benefit of
creating Michigan jobs. In reaching the balance of protecting the environment while
providing economic opportunity, state officials should resist the temptation to
over-regulate the process, which could result in the loss of valuable jobs and
an additional source of energy to heat Michigan’s homes and power its
 Briefing paper on Hydraulic Fracturing
– 9/23/10; written by Paul Jankowski, Office of Geologic Survey, Department of
 Natural Gas: Does Hydraulic Fracturing
Really Cause Earthquakes -9/27/10; written by Professor Chris Rhodes and published
Hard Facts About Fracking – by Elizabeth Svoboda, Popular Mechanics.com.
 Hydraulic Fracturing fact sheet – Chesapeake Energy –