Lansing — Michigan’s environmental regulators are rolling out new rules to ease growing concerns about the use of high-volume hydraulic fracturing to harvest natural gas.
Key changes will be strengthened disclosure of chemicals used in the process, known as “fracking,” and heightened protection against damage to waterways and nearby wells, Department of Environmental Quality officials said.
“We feel we already have the strongest program in the country,” DEQ Director Dan Wyant said. “This just makes it that much stronger.”
DEQ officials say the added rules acknowledge worries among environmentalists, groups such as Anglers of the Au Sable and residents of targeted fracking areas.
Concerns have been heightened by a Canadian firm’s extensive mineral rights leasing in the forests of the northwestern Lower Peninsula. A Charlevoix group twice has tried to gather enough petition signatures to force an election on banning hydraulic fracturing.
The process involves the pumping under high pressure of huge volumes of water, chemicals and sand to fracture deep shale formations and release natural gas or, in some cases, oil, to be brought back to the surface and collected.
Among the new regulations, which don’t require legislation but will have to go through a 6- to 9-month rule-making process, drillers using 100,000 or more gallons of water will have to:
■Provide information about all wells within a quarter-mile; use the state’s special assessment tool to project the impact of their water use; and test the water content of nearby wells to assure it’s not being damaged by fracking.
■Disclose the chemicals they’re using to the state and on a user-friendly registry, FracFocus. For trade-secret water additives, chemical families will have to be disclosed.
■Report to the DEQ 48 hours before starting a fracking operation; monitor, record and report injection pressures; cease operations and report to the DEQ when a pressure change indicates there’s a problem.
Hal Fitch, who directs the department’s oil and gas permitting program, said most well operators follow these practices, but putting them in statute gives the public more assurance fracking can be done safely.
Wyant said the DEQ also will create a user-friendly website where anyone can find the precise location and get information about wells and planned fracking operations.
At the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter, Clean Water Program coordinator Rita Chapman said the new rules, while helpful, don’t result in sufficient safeguards for people and the environment.
“It’s good to see they acknowledge that are many concerns about the process,” Chapman said. “(But) there’s way more to be done.”
Chapman said the fracking program still will lack the public-participation process required before other types of permits are issued — including formal notice of a planned project, a public comment period, possibly a public hearing and the right to appeal a DEQ decision.
“Public notification is important,” Chapman said. “Otherwise, often the first people know is when trucks start showing up, there are loud noises and land is being cleared.”
John Griffin, Associated Petroleum Industries of Michigan executive director, said drillers generally support the rules, which the department has been developing for more than a year.
“I think they’re a good balance,” said Griffin, adding he’s found “there is a lot of fear” about the process as he’s met with groups around the state. He said “a lot of nonsense” also is being spread by opponents wanting to ramp-up those fears.
Michigan Clean Water Action Director Nic Clark called the new rules “a drop in the bucket when you think about the potential risks associated with fracking. ”
Clean Water Action is backing House Democrats’ legislation calling for public hearings before permits are issued, a comprehensive “health impacts” study and other new provisions, he said.
Fracking has been used on some 12,000 oil and gas wells in Michigan since the 1950s with little incident, according to the DEQ’s Fitch. Most of those wells still are producing, he said.
Heightened concerns surround a newer process involving much deeper drilling — as far as two miles underground and two miles horizontally. It can require millions of gallons of chemical-infused water and take up to a month to complete.