Debunking Common Myths about Shale Development in Michigan

As more and more communities in Michigan discuss responsible shale development, there has been a corresponding influx of criticism that is simply not based in fact.  Whether it is misinformation about chemical use and disclosure or wild accusations regarding exporting natural gas, anti-fracking groups apparently will stop at nothing to advance their ideology. However, when one looks at the facts and corresponding scientific evidence, reality is much different.

The public has a right to know about the claims advanced by environmental groups to forward their agendas – and more importantly, what the facts actually show.  Let’s take a closer look at some of the common myths.

MYTH: Producers are interested in developing natural gas from shale in Michigan so they can export it to China.

FACT: According to the Michigan Public Service Commission, most of the natural gas produced in Michigan is also purchased by the utilities that provide services to Michigan residents.  In fact, almost 80 percent of the natural gas used in Michigan has to be imported.  Unfortunately, the natural gas produced in Michigan has been steadily declining since 2007, so increasing production is actually in our state’s best interest.

As for exports to China, the talking point is certainly meant to inflame passions, but let’s take a look at the facts. Currently the U.S. Department of Energy has the authority to regulate the export of natural gas, and it has been taking a slow and deliberate response to the process. Put simply, no export facility can be approved – much less built – without having first been deemed in the public interest by the federal government.

Given that Michigan only produces 20 percent of the natural gas they use, the idea that Michigan producers are going to ship all of the gas they produce in this state to foreign countries is not based on a realistic understanding of the market.

MYTH: The increased production of natural gas nationwide has resulted in an increase of methane emissions, which is worse for the climate than carbon dioxide.

FACT: According to the U.S. EPA, methane emissions from natural gas systems have actually decreased by nearly 17 percent since 1990.  These reductions were due in large part to voluntary actions by the industry, including the use of better technology.  The most compelling point about the reduction in methane emissions is that, according the U.S. Energy Information Administration, between 1990 and 2011 the number of producing wells has almost doubled.  Thus, the reduction in methane emissions over that time period is a testament to the ability of the oil and gas industry to respond to environmental concerns.

In response to questions about the Obama administration’s position on natural gas, EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said, “the natural gas boom has provided us an opportunity and a tremendous and inexpensive energy supply,” adding that “from a greenhouse gas perspective” the growth of natural gas is a net positive. A few weeks earlier, while speaking at the Center for American Progress, McCarthy said:

“The pollution that I’m looking at is traditional pollutants as well as carbon. And natural gas has been a game changer with our ability to really move forward with pollution reductions that have been very hard to get our arms around for many decades.”

Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, when challenged recently on whether methane “leaks” erode the environmental benefits of natural gas, said in response: “The current data suggest that that is an incorrect statement,” adding that there are also “clear solutions” to the environmental concerns about development.

Multiple scientific analyses, many of which have been peer-reviewed, have confirmed the greenhouse gas benefits of natural gas developed from shale. The U.N. IPCC also recently concluded that hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling have helped reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

Activists have frequently leveraged the “methane” talking point to suggest that shale gas is not a viable environmental solution. But like much of what is pushed by anti-fracking groups, the facts tell a different story.

MYTH: Hydraulic fracturing is causing earthquakes all across the country.

FACT: According to the National Research Council, which is part of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences:

“Hydraulic fracturing a well as presently implemented for shale gas recovery does not pose a high risk for inducing felt seismic events.”

As EID has discussed before, there is a correlation between wastewater disposal through EPA-regulated injection wells and seismic activity, although some geologists have questioned that link.  Nonetheless, the risk as defined by scientists is still exceedingly low, and with proper planning, the seismic activity can be mitigated.  According to Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, while some earthquakes in other states have been associated with deep-well injection, “Michigan does not have the conditions necessary for this to occur.”

Furthermore, as a result of these geological conditions, Michigan has close to 1,500 Class II injection wells, according to the EPA, which are used to dispose of brine (salt water) associated with oil and gas production.  Michigan’s unique geology is also a reason that the state is able to use old oil and gas reservoirs to store natural gas.  In fact, Michigan stores more natural gas underground than any other state.

The bottom line: “fracking” does not pose a serious risk of inducing major earthquakes, or even seismic events that can be felt.

MYTH: The chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing are kept secret from the public because they are harmful to the environment.

FACT:  As previously discussed by EID and supported by FracFocus, over 98 percent of hydraulic fracturing fluid is water and sand.  The remaining two percent or less typically consists of a handful of additives, many if not all of which are similar to the chemicals that we use every day in our kitchens and throughout our homes.

As for disclosure, while many companies currently list the additives they use at, Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) has recently proposed regulations that not only require companies to use FracFocus, but also require them to disclose the maximum concentration of each chemical used in the process.  As a safeguard, if any part of the fluid is claimed as a trade secret, the companies must still provide the name of the “chemical family.”

According to the MDEQ, the chemical family includes “elements or compounds that have similar physical and chemical characteristics and have a common general name.”  Therefore, the public does have access to the types of additives used in hydraulic fracturing.

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