With the August primary elections on the horizon and a hapless legislature in Lansing scurrying to make up a billion dollar budget deficit, a new round of natural gas exploration in the pristine setting of Northern Michigan raises alarming red flags for every citizen within the state and leads one to question why the State of Michigan would literally sell its soul and the lifeblood of its citizenry for pennies on the dollar.
A State of Michigan mineral rights auction in May brought in $178 million dollars to the state and private landowners are now being asked to lease their mineral rights for deep horizontal wells that involve hydraulic fracturing or ‘hydrofracking’ – a little regulated, immensely controversial, and rapidly growing mining technique that has been linked to massive ground water contamination in numerous other states ranging from Colorado to Kentucky.
Natural gas companies see lucrative opportunities for using this technique to extract natural gas from a giant shale formation that lies like a bowl under much of Northern Michigan.
The cha-ching of dollar investment at the recent mineral rights auction was touched off by the results of an exploratory well drilled this year in Missaukee County, about 30 miles southeast of Traverse City.
That exploratory drilling – which is labeled the ‘Pioneer’ well – was conducted by a subsidiary of the Calgary-based Canadian Encana Corporation. Unlike traditional natural gas wells that tapped into the Antrim shale formation (between 600-2,200 feet deep) across Northern Michigan in the 1980s, the Pioneer well went down 9,865 feet and then drilled horizontally into the Collingswood shale formation for 5,000 feet.
An initial 30-day production test at the well yielded about 2.5 million cubic feet of natural gas per day and the company says it has acquired rights to about 250,000 acres of land in Michigan.
Why We Should Be Afraid
The use of hydrofracking has generated massive controversy in other states such as Pennsylvania, Colorado and Wyoming where it has been associated with toxic spills and well contamination, cancer, and long-term poisoning of residents.
Encana was fined $370,000 by the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission for flawed drilling practices that residents say caused methane and benzene contamination of Divide Creek in northwestern Colorado in 2004.
Because deep shale has less organic content than the shallow layers previously exploited in the ‘80s, the gas in these new deep shale areas is stored in micropores; and in order to get it removed in commercially viable quantities, the shale must be fractured.
The process involves drilling a hole deep into the earth and lining it with cement, which are purportedly a ‘safety measure’, intended to prevent hydrocarbons and other toxic materials used in the process from mixing into the water table. (Never mind that over a period of time, concrete can crack).
Billions of gallons of water are mixed with chemicals and then forced into the well under high pressure in order to fracture the shale and release gas trapped inside.
Alarmingly, according to Mike Barrett of the Michigan Oil & Gas Producers Education Foundation, more than 40% of current natural gas production nationwide is generated through hydrofracking in wells drilled within the last four years.
The laundry list of toxic chemicals injected into the ground during hydrofracking should be enough for State legislators to put an immediate halt to this latest move in Northern Michigan, especially in light of the Orwellian and irresponsible move navigated by ex-Vice President Dick Cheney, who managed to navigate legislation through the U.S. Congress that exempts regulation of this practice – as well as identifying the chemicals – from regulation under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act in a provision of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which is known as The Halliburton Loophole.
Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colorado) calls this exemption an ‘unconscionable Bush-Cheney loophole’ and has introduced legislation to the end the exemption and require that companies disclose the chemicals they use in hydrofracking.
But rather than stand up to the oil & gas lobbying interests, in March the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would instead “undertake a comprehensive study of the impact of hydrofracking on water and public health”, even though the negative impacts are already well-documented, with numerous negative health effects and lawsuits filed by citizens living on leased land in other states.
Environmental consultant and former state regulator Chris Grobbel warns that fracking fluid contains toxic substances and that the water that flows back up and out of the well can contain hazardous substances including heavy metals, hydrocarbons and radionuclides.
“It is hard to know what is going to be added to the [fracking fluid]” he said, “And there are toxic materials that are guaranteed to be in the return flow. Some of the naturally occurring materials are toxic at very low levels.”
Follow the Money
In typical useless fashion, Michigan does not regulate mineral and land use contracts. Over the course of two years, Encana Corp. covertly acquired the rights to mine for natural gas on 250,000 acres covering Cheboygan, Kalkaska and Missaukee counties.
While the State of Michigan only reaped $178 million in revenue on the recent land grab sale, Encana reported 2007 net income of $1.8 billion on revenue of $11.1 billion.
Prior to the announcement, the company had been operating under the name Petoskey Exploration LLC to keep land costs down. Through its shell corporation, Encana released preliminary results that caused an uproar among speculators.
Encana’s drilling results led to a buying frenzy at the state auction for five-year leases to explore mineral rights underneath state land. Such leases typically generate a value of a mere $25.00 per acre, but at the May6th auction the average was a whopping $1500 per acre with some netting a mere $5,500 per acre.
Isn’t it nice to know that our State leaders place such a high value on Michigan’s natural resources when dealing with companies that reap close to $2 billion per year in profits?
Prior to the May auction, Michigan generated $190 million in total for the auctions since 1929, notes Mary Dettloff, chief of the Office of Communications for the DNR. As noted earlier, the May auction generated $178 million in one day.
In a case of extreme irony, that money must go into the Natural Resources Trust Fund, which provides financial assistance to local governments to purchase land for public recreation, or to protect environmentally sensitive land.
Welcome to Ga$land
A few weeks ago, as fate would have it, HBO premiered Ga$land, a frightening documentary produced by filmmaker Josh Fox, which won top awards at the Sundance Film Festival, and documents the unsafe and un-regulated practices involved with hydrofracking.
In scene after scene, the playback is the same: tens of thousands of drilling rigs take over the landscape, gas companies exploit legal loopholes to inject toxins into the ground, and residents living nearby contract severe, unexplained illnesses.
“This isn’t some dystopian nightmare,” he says, “but the harsh reality in communities from Texas to Colorado to Pennsylvania, where gas companies – similar to this recent move in Michigan – have been leasing thousands of acres of pristine watershed land in anticipation of a drilling boom.
In essence, the film demonstrates how the natural gas industry is selling the American public a lethal lie. As one victim notes, “They promise safety and that everything will be okay and that if anything happens they will clean it up; but when it does happen, they basically deny liability and tell you to hire a lawyer and sue them. But by then it’s too late. The safest approach is to never allow them to begin digging in the first place.”
Ga$land is a must see film, especially with the aftermath of the recent Gulf Oil Spill and his well-documented mishaps involving natural gas extraction; the public is focused on energy and the increasingly complicated and risky ways we are getting it.
And they are asking ‘why’? Why after two decades is industrial hemp being overlooked as an energy source? Why isn’t more money being funneled into alternative energies like wind and solar? But mainly, why have our elected officials mortgaged off our future to well-healed gas & coal lobbyists?
In Dimock, Pa, Fox shows where exploding water well revealed methane contamination that ruined residents’ drinking water supplies. He then moves from town to town hearing the same story: contaminated water; fouled air; mysterious illnesses; a deceived citizenry; and regulators who aren’t regulating.
Perhaps most sobering is when the sheer enormity of his discoveries start to wear him down: “I wanted to get out of Gasland as fast as I could,” he says in the film, “but there was nowhere to go.”
“We’re still asleep at the wheel,” Weston Wilson, an Environmental Protection Agency scientist & industry critic, tells Fox. “And don’t assume because Obama got elected that something’s changed at the EPA.”
While natural gas may be a ‘cleaner burning fossil fuel’ (emitting about half the greenhouse gas pollutants of coal) it is obviously still a fossil fuel and anything but a clean process – especially with the potential damage to one of the world’s largest fresh lake watersheds.
Amazingly, many contaminated water supplies from hydrofracking actually results in ‘water that burns’ from the chemicals & gas leached from the process.
Considering that water is our lifeblood, every citizen in Michigan should be alarmed, angry, and in a nutshell: just say NO!
We need to translate anger into action – otherwise, we may as well resign ourselves and everything we value to being sold off for dimes on the dollar, not unlike a $10-dollar street whore marketed by corrupt politicians.
Hell, a pimp could probably do a better job at protecting its assets.
The clock is ticking. The ball is in your court.