Univ. of Michigan Study Confirms Safety of Hydraulic Fracturing

The University of Michigan has released the preliminary findings of its long-awaited hydraulic fracturing study, and the conclusions are likely to upset some of the most fervent anti-fracking activists in our state. Much of what is presented merely reaffirms what anyone who has been paying attention has already known: that the hydraulic fracturing process is safe, can co-exist with a healthy environment, is beneficial to our economy and – this point is worth stressing – does not contaminate groundwater.

Below is a summary of key findings from each section of the U-M report.

Technology  Report  (1)

  • The researchers identify methods currently being developed to minimize the amount of water used in hydraulic fracturing:

“To decrease the use of water, several non-aqueous fracking methods are now in use or being developed.” (p. 3)

  • On methane “leaks”:

“….field levels of methane leaking from HF sites are now generally low, as was very recently confirmed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Although methane leakage remains a concern for the natural gas industry in general, the probability of significant methane leakage in deep shale drilling, completion, hydraulic fracturing, testing, and production in Michigan is quite low” (p. 3)

“This report reviews the safety record accumulated over more than 30 years of high-pressure deep well fracking (and a much longer period of all forms of fracking) and arrives at the conclusion that the fracking process has a good safety record.” (p. 3)

  • On naturally occurring methane in water wells:

“Numerous water wells were also drilled in the vicinity and almost all have produced gas along with the water, but certainly not as a consequence of gas drilling in the area (which many of them predate).” (p. 7)

  • Casing joint failure is an area of concern, but this report notes the low risk:

“Very little fluid leaks under these circumstances because the fracking pumps immediately detect the pressure drop and shut down.” (p. 11)

  • On groundwater contamination claims:

“3.1.3 Well Completion Issue. The often-postulated percolation upward of fracking water used in deep, long lateral well extensions to contaminate drinking water aquifers near the surface through the intervening impermeable rock formations is highly unlikely and has never reliably been shown to have occurred.” (p. 13)

Geology – Hydrogeology Report  (2)

  • More on groundwater contamination claims:

“Data gathered from hydraulically stimulated wells in other states does not show evidence of hydraulically-induced fractures extending into overlying fresh water aquifers” (p. 12)

  • On regulations and requirements for well bore and casing construction:

“When wells are drilled, completed, or abandoned, drilling companies must abide by regulations that specifically state what efforts that must be undertaken to ensure that no contamination of potable aquifers occurs due to fluid leakage up the wellbore or along the well annulus (exterior of the well casing). These include guidelines for well casing, cementation, and plugging.” (p. 13)

  • On regulations and requirements for flowback water disposal:

“Disposal of flowback and produced brine fluids in Michigan occurs via deep well injection into brine disposal wells. This method for disposal of produced oilfield brines is very common throughout the U.S. These brine disposal wells are regulated and permitted under the EPA Safe Drinking Water Act through the Underground Injection Control as Class II wells. They are also regulated by the MDEQ under Michigan’s Oil and Gas Regulations. Michigan has 1,460 Class II injection wells in current operation. Of these 1,460 wells, brine disposal wells constitute about half, with the remainder serving other uses such as water injection for enhanced oil recovery or gas injection for natural gas storage. Brine disposal wells are often co-located alongside oil and natural gas production wells. This means that producers in Michigan have a much easier time disposing of hydraulic fracturing flowback fluids than producers in Pennsylvania where only five brine disposal wells are currently in operation.” (p. 18)

  • On open pits, which are not used in Michigan:

“The MDEQ requires that all flowback and produced fluids be contained in aboveground steel containers and reinjected back into the subsurface via brine disposal wells. Open pits are not used for flowback water or produced brine storage.” (p. 18)

Environment and Ecology Report  (3)

  • On state laws and programs designed to protect wildlife:

“Michigan is fortunate to have a Wetland Protection Program and also a Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool (WWAT). These could allow for effective evaluations of potential ecological impacts from fracturing operations by considering their proximity and density in relation to sensitive and vulnerable wetlands and fisheries, such as trout streams.” (p. 2)

  • On emissions-reducing efforts in the industry:

“Up to 96% of the fleet of on-road and off-road vehicles employed in a particular hydraulic fracturing operation are diesel trucks and trailers; however, many of these trucks are being converted to natural gas resulting in reduced emissions. “ (p. 3)

  • On specific and strong regulations unique to oil and gas development Michigan:

“…there will not be discharges of process waters to wastewater treatment plants or surface impoundments in Michigan” (p. 6)

“The State permitting process dictates that all hydraulic fracturing operations reduce their potential impact on-site through a variety of measures. These include construction of the well-pad at least 1320 feet from the nearest stream for State leases… For private properties, the DEQ requires optimal location that protects surface water while considering a host of other property and environmental issues. The State’s considerations also include land elevations, avoiding hillsides, and always using silt curtains. All previous site grounds are covered in plastic to capture any potential spillage.” (p. 6)

  • On existing oil and gas development co-existing with wildlife preservation:

“In Michigan, two NWRs [National Wildlife Refuges] have had oil and gas activities. Kirtland’s Warbler National Wildlife Refuge, one of few small areas with suitable summer habitat for the endangered Kirtland’s Warbler, has two active oil and gas wells, 15 inactive wells, and multiple pipelines; oil and gas exploration activities continue on the Refuge.” (p. 20)

Public Health Report  (4)

  • More on groundwater contamination claims:

“In a study performed by the Ground Water Protection Council concerning Ohio and Texas, there was only one horizontal hydraulic fracturing well in Ohio (prior to 2008) and more than 16,000 wells were completed in Texas over a 16 year period (1993-2008). The review of investigative reports from both states did not find any cases of groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing. The authors of this report also met with officials from eight States (Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Texas) and determined that, based on state investigations, no report of groundwater contamination in these states was associated with hydraulic fracturing.” (p. 19)

  • On hydraulic fracturing and earthquakes:

“To date, there is a lack of supportive data identifying hydraulic fracturing as a direct cause of earthquakes” (p. 21)

  • On the importance of understanding and managing risk (as opposed to claiming risk and opposing activity):

“There exist no risk-free energy development schemes, and all activities (renewable and non-renewable) pose some degree of risk to public health.” (p. 27)

Policy & Law Report (5)

  • On state primacy of regulation:

“…the state is the primary regulator of oil and gas development and its environmental impacts in Michigan.” (p. 16)

  • On Michigan regulations exceeding what is mandated by the federal government:

“In some cases, Michigan’s requirements go beyond the federal requirements.” (p. 10)

  • On state monitoring of water withdrawals:

“…the DEQ assesses the environmental impact of high-volume groundwater withdrawals using a similar standard [to the state’s water use program].” (p. 13)

Economics Report (6)

  • On the tax revenue generated by oil and gas development in Michigan:

“The State of Michigan took in over $32 million in 2010 in tax revenue from landowners and more than $26 million in royalties, bonuses, rent, and storage fees in 2012. Furthermore, it was estimated that over $81 million was received by private land owners in 2010.” (p. 8-9)

  • On creating jobs in Michigan:

“All together, the gas extraction industry creates employment and income for Michigan” (p. 2)

  • According to the report, service firms employ three times as many workers as the producing companies, but in calculating the projected job growth, it had to rely on incomplete or missing information. In addition, contract labor was not included at all in the calculation.  Thus, the overall employment impact is likely to be much higher than what the U-M study found. (See p. 15-16)
  • Jobs associated with the oil and gas industry can bring in between $15,000 and $30,000 more than the median household income in Michigan. (See p. 7)

Public Perception Report (7)

  • U-M’s technical report on public perception acknowledges that there is a lot of misinformation and disagreement on the impacts from the use of hydraulic fracturing.

“While no community-level studies have been conducted in Michigan on public perceptions of HVHF, disagreements about its impacts are apparent in the dialogue that is emerging among stakeholder groups.” (p. 2)

  • The report also acknowledges that there has been little data from Michigan on public perception, but a Deloitte survey conducted in 2012 indicated that a majority of those polled supported the use of hydraulic fracturing in the development of oil and gas.

52% of those surveyed in Michigan indicated that “the benefits of hydraulic fracturing outweighed the risks.” (p. 2)

In addition, 54% of those polled somewhat or strongly support extracting natural gas from shale rock as opposed to 35% who oppose it. (See p. 6)


Based on the findings of this comprehensive report from the University of Michigan, it would be difficult to claim that hydraulic fracturing (or shale development as a whole) poses an unacceptable or unmanageable risk to the state of Michigan. On the contrary, the report shows that shale development is well understood, tightly regulated, and quite safe.

This is certainly good news for the public, although it tosses cold water (once again) on the baseless and unscientific claims of anti-fracking activists who are trying to ban this potential economic engine in Michigan.



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