By DAVID GREEN
There have been many good experiences in gas and oil exploration in Michigan, said Dr. Chris Grobbel, but those aren’t the cases where he gets involved.
As an environmental and land use consultant based in Traverse City, Grobbel is sought to help out when things go wrong—and they do go wrong, he says.
The message from drilling companies in Michigan over the years, he said, is that none of the wells involving hydraulic fracturing (fracking) have leaked and there is nothing to worry about.
However, problems generally don’t occur at the well-head, Grobbel said.
“Problems especially exist at collection sites, hydration processing sites and pipelines,” he explained.
Grobbel addressed a crowd of about 80 people April 5 in Brooklyn where oil exploration is booming.
In 1995 the State of Michigan stopped maintaining a public list of contamination sites associated with oil and gas drilling. The list was accessible on the state’s website.
“Today there’s no comprehensive list available,” Grobbel said. “It really takes a lot of effort to find out where the sites are and how far along they are [in the clean-up process].”
In 2001, a study by the Alliance for the Great Lakes identified 3,000 drilling sites and learned that contamination problems existed at 200 of them. Twenty-five percent of the cases involved drinking water problems, he said, and none of the sites with groundwater contamination have been fully remediated.
“Not a very good record,” Grobbel said.
In a 2007 study looking at Otsego County alone, Grobbel said about 30 percent of the oil and gas sites had environmental contamination.
“These things happen,” he said, “and industry will tell you they don’t, and government will tell you, ‘Trust us.’”
Grobbel said about 80 percent of the problems are related to human error, and he provided several examples of spills, poor response and a lack of follow-up. Many of the incidents occurred when he worked for the Michigan DEQ.
“My point is vigilance—as a land owner, as a community,” he said. “As a former regulator, I have to tell you, don’t trust the regulators.”
Current oil production in Lenawee and Jackson counties is coming from “conventional shale” rock that doesn’t require horizontal fracking.
What’s getting underway in some areas of the country is drilling into unconventional shale. Drilling initially goes deep, then several holes are drilled that radiate horizontally out from the center. Each well will be fracked several times.
Grobbel said there are currently about 42 wells drilled in the Irish Hills area. In addition, there are plans for two deep well injection sites to dispose of brine and contaminated water from drilling and fracking. The liquid is sent down the well and for storage below in rock formations.
Risks from the storage technique include the contamination of water supplies through upward or lateral migration, and induced earthquakes, such as those reported recently in southeast Ohio.
A report issued earlier this month by the U.S. Geological Survey reports with “almost certainty” that waste water wells are the cause of an increase of earthquakes in the central United States in recent years.
Grobbel said about 6 million gallons of water are used each time a well is fracked, and about 4 million remains underground and no longer part of the water system. Disposal of the 2 million gallons that rise back up is where accidents sometimes occur.
Grobbel warned residents to expect truck traffic around the clock when drilling is underway, and to look for the possibility of the fragmentation of wild land through access roads. He knows of a 150-foot wide access road in northern Michigan created to serve only two wells.
The U.S. EPA will schedule a hearing about the proposed injection wells, but Grobbel cautioned not to expect answers to questions. Instead, information will be collected at the hearing and a response will come later.
The Norvell Township supervisor claimed that approval for the injection wells was already given by the DEQ, with notification given only to the county clerk.
Grobbel urged property owners to seek legal advice before leasing their land for exploration. For example, he said, a lease agreement should call for restoration of the property when the drilling operation is completed. Most leases include permission for installing an injection well.
“By the time you get to litigation,” he said, “you’ve probably failed.” The terms of your lease aren’t going to change.
Even if a lease isn’t signed, property can be “pooled” to include all land in a certain area. This could result in royalties paid to a non-participating land owner.
If injection wells go in, said an audience member, there has to be some sort of organized response in the case of an emergency—something that goes beyond the local volunteer fire departments.
“We live in one of the great freshwater places in the world,” he said about the Irish Hills region, “and it could all be mucked up.”
Dean Solomon of MSU Extension visited a Shell Oil drilling site in Pennsylvania and reported that vertical wells are drilled to depths between 3,000 and 9,000 feet, then horizontal drilling extends outward 5,000 feet or more.
“The technology is fascinating,” Solomon wrote, “much more high-tech than I imagined.”
At a fracking site, Solomon wrote that millions of gallons of water and sand are continually transported to the site. During each 12-hour shift, 75 employees are on site and 120 vehicles travel in and out.
Extension employee Curtis Talley reviewed a New York Times article about leases for oil and gas wells.
Of more than 100,000 leases studied, fewer than half require companies to compensate land owners for water contamination and damage to livestock and crops.
Most leases give drilling companies discretion about cutting down trees and about the locations to store chemicals, build roads and drill. Companies are also permitted to operate generators and spotlights throughout the night near residences.
Drillers rarely describe to land owners potential environmental and other risks that federal law requires them to disclose to investors.
Most leases are for three to five years, but two-thirds of those reviewed allowed extensions without approval from property owners.