Fracking opponents try again

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

The wheels begin to turn in earnest next week on efforts to bring a ban on hydraulic fracturing before Michigan voters in 2016.

When Michigan's Board of State Canvassers meets Tuesday, the four-member panel will review forms for the collection of signatures to initiate legislation. It's a paperwork formality necessary before supporters of a ban on the controversial natural gas extraction process can begin approaching state residents.

A grassroots organization, the Committee to Ban Fracking in Michigan, is behind the effort and Tuesday's meeting represents the start of the group's second effort to get the issue before voters. In 2012 and 2013, members tried to collect the 250,000 signatures needed to put a ban on the ballot, but came up far short — getting about 70,000.

This time will be different, according to LuAnne Kozma, the Committee to Ban Fracking's campaign chairwoman.

"This time we're going to go all the way," she said Friday. "We have the resources that we need this time to get to 250,000. We're getting a lot more people involved and we definitely have more awareness of the issue statewide."

Hydraulic fracturing pumps a water/chemical mix into shale formations beneath the surface to crack the rock and release natural gas. While a smaller-scale version of that process has been used in Michigan in the past, the current method uses millions of gallons of water paired with horizontal drilling at much deeper levels and has a much shorter track record.

Industry officials say fracking is a safe way to extract large amounts of natural gas from shale rock formations.

The forms being reviewed next week call for:

■Prohibiting the "use of horizontal hydraulic fracturing or 'fracking' and acid completion treatment of horizontal gas and oil wells."

■Prohibiting "emissions, production, storage, disposal and processing of frack and acidizing wastes created by gas and oil operations."

■Eliminating "the state's policy favoring ultimate recovery of maximum production of oil and gas."

■Protecting "water resources, land, air, climate and public health."

To date, large-scale fracking operations in Michigan have been limited, with a series of test wells having been drilled with mixed results. Falling oil prices also have lowered the demand for natural gas production, giving the state an opportunity to adjust its regulations ahead of the next exploration rush.

In February, Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality sent out new rules for oil and gas companies looking to operate in Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties. They were intended to address concerns about drilling near residential developments. But they failed to give local municipalities the authority to halt projects residents don't want.

For groups like the Michigan Environmental Council, those regulations were a start — but far from all that is necessary. James Clift, the group's policy director, said it is unclear whether the Canvassers board would vote to support the initiation of legislation effort. The environmental group is focused on getting tighter fracking regulations passed.

"We're focused on that approach, improving the regulations that are on the books ...," he said Friday. "Most of the problems we see with hydraulic fracturing are due to sloppy practices at the operations. We want to look at how we improve those practices."

Once the forms are approved, Kozma said her group is likely to begin a six-month window for collecting signatures in late May.

If they reached the 250,000 goal, the initiation would go to the legislature, where it could be made into law.

"If the legislature takes no action or doesn't approve it, it will go to the voters," said Fred Woodhams, spokesman for the Secretary of State. At the earliest, that would be on the November 2016 ballot.

(313) 222-2034