The Future of Fracking in Michigan

On November the eighth when millions throughout Michigan went to cast their vote, there was one thing that didn’t quite make it to the ballot — a proposed ban on fracking.

Despite being a large talking point for many years, fracking has recently faced a loss of public interest, which is likely a consequence of the plummeting gas and oil prices. However, with Donald Trump set to take the presidency amid promises of reviving the coal and oil industries, this could be set to change. Recent studies showing the potential harm of fracking are going unnoticed, and there is uncertainty in the future of fracking both within Michigan and internationally.

Hydraulic Fracturing, or fracking, has been a controversial method of obtaining trapped natural gas thousands of feet below the surface. It involves pumping water under high pressure to fracture the surrounding rock releasing the natural resources. Although not something noticed by everyone in the state, it has occurred at 12,000 different sites since 1952, according to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

In 2012, the University of Michigan conducted a detailed assessment of fracking within the state, that looked in detail at every aspect of fracking and what it could bring to the state, including job offers, environmental costs and the overall conclusion on what fracking could bring[J1] .

Throughout the beginning of the 21st century, hydraulic fracturing has always been a hot topic, on the tip of the tongues of many different politicians and journalists.

John Callewaert, the Emerging Opportunities Director at the Graham Institute of Sustainability, the University of Michigan’s department working extensively on fracking, and other issues of similar stature, he indicates the lack of interest is[J3]  simply due to low oil prices. This lack of interest is exemplified in the press, as there is a significant drop of articles covering fracking since 2013. There was also no mention of it, or anything to do with climate change, brought up in the debates leading up to the election. However, in the past few months, there has been growing interest into researching the health risks associated with hydraulic fracturing.

Similarly, a study conducted at Yale University earlier this year found that there is a correlation between hydraulic fracking and carcinogens found in the surrounding groundwater of the site. The research, which was published in Science of the Total Environment, looked at the carcinogenicity of 1,177 water pollutants that would be found in groundwater, and 143 pollutants in the air released by the process. Out of these studied, 55 individual chemicals[J4]

A much darker and previously unknown aspect that this study encountered was that more than 80% of the chemicals that were found lacked any sufficient data on the potential threat to human health they may pose.

Dr Nicole Deziel, the author of this study, says she was inspired to partake in this study due to the lack of other research into the area . She says “(fracking) has expanded dramatically with little understanding of health impacts”, and that “more studies are needed” if we wish to fully understand the potential hazards to human health that could be associated. Dezial and her team are continuing research in Ohio. However, hers is not the only research that has found a link between fracking and health, with other studies also finding the same correlation in both Montana and Texas.

In Michigan, these health concerns are not going unnoticed, with activist groups still lobbying for a ban on fracking. In the past few years alone, there haves been three separate attempts to get a vote to ban fracking put on the ballot paper within the state. However, with the little interest in the most recent years, the petitions have never quite made it to the stage of consideration. While the government seems staunch on supporting hydraulic fracking, reassuring that it isn’t as destructive as it seems, however environmental groups disagree strongly.

One of these environmental groups is the Sierra Club, a national grassroots environmental organisation, which instead supports a route that relies more on renewables than fracking, has constantly challenged the DEQ to tighten regulations within the state of Michigan. Nancy Shiffler, chair of the Michigan Beyond Natural Gas and Oil Committee, says the main goal of the Sierra Club is to work with the DEQ to tighten regulations and promote awareness. She believes that the lack of interest, and therefore why the bill failed, is due to the lower gas and oil prices – however if this changes, the interest level may go back up. She says it’s “difficult to get people to recognise slow moving disasters”, and that any mention of fracking in the debates may have actually been more detrimental than beneficial.

One of the main concerns in Michigan is the water quality and usage, Nancy says, and fracking is something that could influence both. As found in Deziel’s study, there is a lot we don’t know about fracking and how it actually influences the water sources that it takes from. Timothy Elkins, a spokesperson from the Environmental Protection Agency, says this concern is also being taken seriously, and EPA are conducting a renewed study. Therefore, it seems that these new health reports are not going unnoticed, and the EPA are not being complacent, despite the future of the agency being in question under Trump presidency.

When asking about the future of fracking under the new administration, Nancy remains hopeful. She says: “we will have our work cut out for us”, however she is adamant that it “may shake a lot of people out of their complacency”.

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