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State House Democrats want to tighten regulations on 'fracking'

Hydraulic fracturing rig
flickr user Eusko Jaurlaritza

Eight Democrats in the Michigan House are introducing legislation to tighten regulations on a practice used by the oil and gas industry known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking."

The drilling technique is at the center of national environmental debates. It uses water and chemicals deep underground to harvest natural gas.

State Representative Jeff Irwin introduced one of the pieces of legislation. He says other states have had serious problems with fracking, like water pollution. He hopes the legislation will address two main concerns about fracking -- transparency and water use.

"We've seen problems with people's wells going dry because of the aggressive water use of these frackers," he said. "We've seen people's wells be poisoned because of the drilling involved in this fracking operation. Because of that, we felt we needed to protect the Great Lakes state, protect Great Lakes water and get the state of the art regulations for fracking here in Michigan."

The legislation would require companies to disclose the chemicals they use while drilling for natural gas. Iriwn says he wants the legislation to properly protect Michigan's water supply.

"We need to get the protection of our water quality right," he said. "The business of these companies is to make money, but the business of the state Legislature should be to make sure that when these companies are here in the state operating, that they do so in a way that's safe and that protects our water quality and that protects Great Lakes water from being taken out of the cycle forever."

Irwin says it can take up to 5 million gallons of water to frack a well once, and wells are often used ten to 20 times.

Industry groups say fracking is safe, and placing regulations on natural gas collection will restrict business.

Michigan Oil and Gas Association (MOGA) spokesperson Deb Muchmore responded to the legislation saying, "Michigan has been and continues to be a leader when it comes to producing clean natural gas from our state's own resources, while maintaining an outstanding track record of keeping the environment and communities clean and safe. At the same time, Michigan energy production is vital to our state's economy, supporting some 30,000 Michigan jobs and contributing about $3 billion to the state's economy."

"Importantly for Michigan, the package does not call for an all-out nonsensical, and job-killing ban, as some activists are advocating," Muchmore said, adding, "Michigan producers have used hydraulic fracturing for six decades."

That's only partly true. Vertical hydraulic fracturing has been used in Michigan for decades, but horizontal hydraulic fracturing is relatively new.

Horizontal hydraulic fracturing allows companies to drill down into the ground, and then turn the drillhead to fracture underground rock for miles. A much higher volume of water and chemicals is needed to drill these wells.

Here's a video on how this relatively new practice works:


- Sarah Kerson, Michigan Radio Newsroom & Jake Neher, MPRN

*This post has been updated