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Increased horizontal hydraulic fracturing is causing concerns in Michigan

A natural gas well.
World Resources Institute
A natural gas well.

Right now we have abundant supplies of natural gas because of what the U.S. Energy Information administration calls robust inshore production, there is a glut of natural gas and that means cheaper gas.

This increased supply is mostly due to hydraulic fracturing - more importantly, a newer way to use the drilling method, horizontal hydraulic fracturing. Horizontal fracking has made it easier and cheaper to extract natural gas and oil from shale deposits in the U.S. and around the globe. Horizontal fracking has meant a boom in gas drilling in the U.S. and it's meant more jobs in certain areas of the country. It’s meant less dependence on foreign sources for energy. And because burning natural gas emits about half the CO2 emissions of coal or oil, it means less of the greenhouse gases that are causing climate change. It also means families can heat their homes more cheaply.

But there are also risks and concerns. The extraordinary expansion of natural gas extraction through this use of horizontal hydraulic fracturing is causing some real concerns about risks to air and water quality.

Andy Hoffman, a professor of sustainable enterprise at the University of Michigan, and Abrahm Lustgarten, a reporter for ProPublica, joined us today.

In traditional fracking, a vertical well is created by inserting a pipe down deep into the rock layer that contains the natural gas deposit, and then a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals is injected to create enough pressure to crack the rock and release the gas. Horizontal fracking is a little different.

“What a horizontal well does is go down to that layer and instead of just piercing it perpendicular to that geological formation, it actually turns. It makes a 90 degree turn and then runs horizontally through that geological layer,” explained Lustgarten. “That means that the well is significantly longer, it holds more fluid, more chemicals, and just involves a whole lot more material to do the same kind of fracturing process that happens vertically.”

Michigan has been using vertical fracking since the 1940s, and now the industry says we extract more gas and use less fracking fluid with the horizontal method. However, not enough scientific research has been conducted on the long-term impacts of this drilling.

Additionally, fracking can have a huge impact on the community.

“This does divide communities where suddenly you have this massive influx of wealth that’s disproportionate,” said Hoffman. “If you own land and you can sell those rights, then you can pit neighbor against neighbor. It can be very fractious.”

Despite all of this, public opinion polls show that 52% of people in Michigan believe that the benefits outweigh the risks. 

-Michelle Nelson, Michigan Radio Newsroom

Listen to the full interview above.

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