Fact Checking a Recent News Series on Fracking in Michigan

Several recent articles, published by the Center for Michigan, focused on hydraulic fracturing in Michigan and were reprinted in a variety of news outlets.  The Center, to its credit, claims one of its purposes is to “engage, inform and achieve…to make up a dynamic model of social and political change.”  Unfortunately, when a group relies on inaccurate and/or misleading information to “inform” its audience, the rest of its purpose correspondingly gets skewed.  In this case, the articles “A divisive practice’s pros and cons,” and “Michigan’s fracking bonanza challenges state regulators to balance economic benefits with public health concerns” fail to live up to the Center’s mission.

In the first article, writer Jacob Wheeler attempts to contrast the pros and cons of hydraulic fracturing (fracking).  The misinformation in this article becomes apparent in the author’s list of “cons.” Given that there are significant misstatements in the article, it is worth addressing them one at a time.

Wheeler begins by asserting that:

“Because fracking involves pumping a concoction of water, sand and chemicals into the ground to break apart the bedrock, environmentalists and private landowners worry that those chemicals could reach, and poison, the groundwater.” (emphasis added)

With all the hysteria about the perils of fracking in the media, it’s no wonder people are worried.  However, the oil and gas industry is heavily regulated at the state and federal level, as discussed here.  Furthermore, in over 60 years of using fracking, there has not been one substantiated case of the fracking process causing ground water contamination, as discussed here.  However, nowhere in the article does this fact get mentioned.

Wheeler then goes on to discuss the supposed lack of chemical disclosure by the companies, specifically stating that:

Companies are not required to disclose the chemicals they use, or the formula of the mixture, in the process.”

This is demonstrably false.  Many companies voluntarily disclose the chemicals they use on and are required by many states to do the same. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has proposed regulations that would require even more information about the chemicals, including information for the formulas.  Furthermore, companies are required to disclose the chemicals they use through the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA).  EPCRA was intended to help emergency planning and provide the public with information on hazardous chemicals in their community.  As for emergency planning, industries are required to supply information about the hazardous chemicals present on site through the submittal of Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) to state and local authorities.

To claim that companies are not required to disclose the chemicals they use is simply not true.

Wheeler then moves on to discuss water usage, specifically stating that:

“In Michigan, as many as 35 million gallons of freshwater are removed from nearby aquifers per frack well — the highest rate in the nation.” (emphasis added)

This is also factually untrue. According to DEQ records, there has never been a well that has required 35 million gallons of water.  Presumably, the 35 million gallon figure was gathered from a permit application filed with the DEQ that requested up to that amount.  However, as seen from the records, the average amount of water used is nowhere near that high.

Wheeler then goes on to cite the Anglers of the Au Sable’s claim that large amounts of water used in the fracking process will cause rivers and streams to dry up.

“The Anglers of the Au Sable, a Michigan environmental conservation group, and others, worry that this will deplete freshwater sources and potentially dry up rivers and streams…” (emphasis added)

First of all, the amount of water used in the fracking process pales in comparison to other industrial uses, and it is dwarfed by agricultural demand.  Furthermore, there is simply no evidence to support the claim that fracking will lead to a depletion of rivers and streams, as discussed here.  However, Wheeler, in the other article published on May 20, claimed that:

“…water withdrawals for a frack job in 2011 nearly dried up a segment of the Manistee’s north branch” (emphasis added)

No, it did not. The DEQ investigated this very claim and found no supporting evidence.  Specifically, the DEQ found that “no relationship could be established between discharge/stage variations in headwater streams and water withdrawals associated with HVHF [high-volume hydraulic fracturing] for the locations in question.” Unfortunately, for the public to get the correct information, reports and analysis must be based on all the evidence before such sweeping conclusions should be drawn. Wheeler simply regurgitated an environmentalist talking point without scrutiny.

Wheeler then seemingly attacks the use of multiple wells from one drilling location.

The industry’s push “for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to allow ‘resource play hubs’ (multiple drilling wells from the same site) could exponentially deplete the local water supply.” (emphasis added)

No, they won’t. It’s worth noting up front that “resource play hubs” allow for less surface impact (i.e. fewer wells to produce the same amount of energy), as horizontal and directional drilling allow companies to access greater deposits of oil and gas per well. As Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has said: “by using directional drilling and fracking, we have an opportunity to have a softer footprint on the land.”

Wheeler appears to be arguing that more wells mean more water use, and that will be a drain on the water supply.  However, as discussed here, there is simply no evidence that fracking will have long-term effect on aquifers.  DEQ monitors all large water withdrawals, including permit requirements that incorporate the use of a water assessment tool designed to protect against aquifer depletion.  This is more fully discussed here.

Furthermore, there is no substantiated evidence that multiple wells on a single well pad will “exponentially deplete local water supplies.” Making an assertion without supporting documentation does nothing to help better educate the public.

If the Center wishes to continue proclaiming that it supports informing the public about relevant issues, it would behoove the editors to fact check the stories from their contributors before publishing them. The newspapers in Michigan that reprinted the Center’s reports on fracking should also take note.

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