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Michigan DEQ clarifies comments on drilling accidents

On The Environment Report yesterday, we heard from Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Communications Director Brad Wurfel about his agency's views on the safety of hydraulic fracturing.

In the interview, he said drillers have been using hydraulic fracturing since the 1960's to drill vertical wells. 

We pointed out there are important differences between traditional vertical drilling and a newer method called horizontal hydraulic fracturing. The new method allows drillers to get natural gas that's much deeper underground.

One of the things to note:

With the more traditional, vertical hydraulic fracturing we’re talking about tens of thousands of gallons of water – horizontal hydraulic fracturing uses millions of gallons.

This is water that’s contaminated and cannot be used again.

In the interview, Brad Wurfel said:

"In 50 years and 12,000 wells around the state, we’ve never had to respond to an environmental emergency with hydraulic fracturing."

I followed up with him on this point today, to ask about this leak that my colleague Lester Graham reported on in February 2011:

The Associated Press reports a leak has shut down a drilling operation not too far from Traverse City. It's not yet clear whether it will damage underground water sources. It does raise questions as to whether Michigan regulations are adequate to protect the environment while exploiting the gas reserves in the state.

Here is Wurfel's response:

"The well you mentioned below is one I refer to when I think about the risk associated with trying to be 100% transparent. I made that call. It taught me a really good lesson. We reported out this situation immediately last year, in the interest of wanting to be absolutely transparent, but before we had a full, clear picture of what happened, which would have taken some time.

At the time, fracturing wasn’t nearly as hot as it is now, and explaining it to the media required a lot of process education… and that did not come off as well as it could have.

The well is the Hart D1-34, operated by Presidium Antrim West.  The report on the incident has not been finalized; the company is still conducting production tests.  However, the interim conclusion is that there was a problem with cementing of the casing. 

Presidium immediately shut down the operation and conducted remedial work on the well to correct the problem.  The incident involved a leak of nitrogen gas between casing and the cement sheath; the nitrogen came up between two strings of casing and escaped to the atmosphere. 

Nonetheless, we required Presidium to drill a monitoring well near the gas well to test the aquifer; the monitor well confirmed there was no contamination of the fresh water. 

So the incident did not result in any contamination of the environment, unless you call an escape of nitrogen “contamination.” Nitrogen makes up 78 percent of the atmosphere. 

I’ve also been hearing lately about the H2S leak around Christmas getting tied to fracturing. That was a leak at a disposal well for a byproduct of gas production. A compromised valve sent H2S into the atmosphere for about four hours in the middle of the night. H2S smells like rotten eggs. The smell was detectable from Crawford County to the Mackinac Bridge, because it went straight into the air.

But again, this had nothing to do with hydraulic fracturing. It’s something that can happen with any oil or gas development, and when it does happen we focus immediately on effective response and thereafter on studying the situation to see what happened and how to make sure it doesn’t happen anywhere else again."





Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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