In Michigan these days, we hear a lot of conflicting information and disinformation about the modern practice of fracking. The new “fracking” that people are upset about (sometimes “slickwater fracking” or other variations) is short for horizontally drilled high-volume hydraulic fracturing of shale for the purpose of extracting natural gas, natural gas liquids and oil.

It is the exact same term as the imaginary curse word from the old TV series “Battlestar Galactica.” The characters of Battlestar Galactica were living on an imaginary spaceship and fighting maginary robots. Unfortunately, fracking in the 21st Century is definitely not an imaginary issue.

Oil and gas companies are pushing into new territories – our neighborhoods, state forests, parklands, etc. – with bulldozers, drilling rigs and convoys of tanker trucks loaded with chemicals. They want to extract gas and oil from deep shale. Pretty much the entire Lower Peninsula of Michigan rests atop the deep Collingwood shale, making almost anyplace in the Lower Peninsula a potential drilling site.

Many Michigan citizens do not want our neighborhoods, farms, parklands and so on turned into intense industrial zones which will then become industrial wastelands as the wells stop flowing. Some think that better regulation of fracking is both possible and adequate. Some want a moratorium on fracking until a better situation is in place. Some believe that there’s no such thing as safe fracking, and that a statewide ban is needed to preserve clean water and human health.

There are opposing sides to fracking, and opposing arguments about it. That’s where the conflicting information comes from, along with disinformation. One of the most misleading pieces of disinformation is the statement, “We’ve been fracking in Michigan for 50 years, with no harm to the environment.”

What has been done for 50 years is something like fracking, but it is very far from the same thing. It’s like saying a residential street is the same thing as an eight-lane expressway. They are both paved roads. Cars and trucks drive on both. Both are part of the transportation network. But it is obvious they are not the same thing.

Several wells for gas were drilled into the Antrim shale in the northern Lower Penninsula as early as the 1940s. Many more were drilled in the 1970s and 1980s, when a precursor to modern fracking was used to make them more productive.

These are vertical wells, drilled to depths of 150 to 1500 feet, with some going as deep as 2,200 feet. The Antrim is, in the productive areas, a fractured shale. The already-existing fractures in the vicinity of the wellhead were opened up by pumping an acid solution into the well. The volume of this solution is less than 100,000 gallons, sometimes closer to 10,000 gallons, depending on the depth of the well and the extent of local fractures.

Shallow vertical wells in the Antrim shale typically produce a lot of water. That is, everything pumped in to open up the well head comes back, and then some. The Antrim shale contains a lot of water trapped, along with the gas, in the shale layer. Both water and gas come out of the typical Antrim shale well for many years.

Wells in the Collingwood shale are different. The first one (Encana’s Pioneer well in Missaukee County, about 30 miles southeast of Traverse City), went down 9,685 feet and then horizontally another 5,000 feet. In 2010, it was shown to produce an initial 2.5 million cubic feet of natural gas per day. Other wells have been horizontally drilled for 10,000 feet. That’s clearly quite different than a shallow vertical well; 10-20 times more drilling per well.

Based on the record of fracking in other states, 5 million gallons of fracking fluid per well is generally cited as a typical figure. Several of the dozen or so fracked wells in the Collingwood shale have used over 20 million gallons of fracking fluid, so the typical figure for Michigan may be higher. This is also obviously different from an Antrim well; 50-200 times as much fracking fluid.

The Collingwood, like other deep shales, is under a lot more pressure than the Antrim, and is a lot more compacted. It may havd some preexisting fractures, but these have been compressed into microfractures. The fluid has to be pumped under considerably more pressure to open up the deep shale, and it contains a substantial amount of sand (or other “proppant”) to keep the fractures propped open.

Deep shale fracking fluid contains a bewildering list of chemicals – to prevent corrosion, to move the sand into the cracks, to release the sand once it is in the cracks, to prevent the water from being absorbed by the shale, to prevent bacterial growth, and so forth. Lists of the chemical components run as high as 750 different items, though not all chemicals are used in every well.

It would take a chemist a long time to explain what each one is and what it does. We would have to be chemists ourselves to understand the explanation. To further complicate matters, fracking companies keep some chemicals in the mix secret, as in “trade secret,” so there is no complete public disclosure of the contents in any well.

What we do know is that some of the chemicals used – naptha, glutaraldehyde, benzene, ethylene glycol, etc. – cause cancer, are otherwise toxic, or both. Further, the fracking fluid picks up other minerals previously trapped in the shale – sometimes heavy metals and radioactive isotopes, depending on the local geology – that are equally harmful to human health.

Roughly half the fracking fluid, with whatever it has picked up from the shale, comes back out of the well immediately, as fracking waste. Roughly half stays in the shale, a source for future contamination of ground water if overlying layers are not as impermeable as the drillers claim.

The half that comes out has to be disposed of somehow. Drillers have a spotty record of disposing of fracking waste properly. There have been instances of it being used as “brine” sprayed on dirt roads. Some has been dumped into rivers. Some has been sent to sewage treatment plants which are not in the least equipped to deal with the mix of toxic chemicals in the waste. And even when it has been disposed of per regulations in deep injection wells, we are just hoping it does not come back to the surface.

For instance, see http://grist.org/news/radioactive-frack-waste-quarantined-at-pa-dump-turned-away/.

There are lots of other issues around fracking sites, such as thousands of tanker truck deliveries destroying local roads even if they do not spill their toxic loads. Ground water contamination is almost impossible to fix. Methane contamination of well water has happened, with fracking companies denying responsibility. Drillers and others who work around the chemicals may expect many health issues in the future.

The point here is, deep shale fracking is not the same thing as shallow vertical drilling into an already-fractured shale; not even close. Anybody who tells you it is, is wrong. If they actually believe what they are saying, they don’t know much about fracking. If they do know better, they are lying to you, whether they represent the Governor, the Department of Natural Resources, an “objective” academic source or a drilling company. It’s as simple as that.

Fracking has risks as well as benefits. We each have the right to make a judgement about the relative weight of these. If the risks to the public – future generations as well as the current one – outweigh the benefits, then we have the right to ban fracking for the same reasons we ban smoking in schools and businesses, driving while drunk and bribing government officials.

To put the issue of banning fracking in Michigan on the ballot in 2014, sign the petition being circulated by the Committee to Ban Fracking in Michigan (http://letsbanfracking.org/ ).

Art Myatt

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