New NWF Report Says Michigan, Ohio Should Strengthen Fracking Laws
By John Masson
June 21, 2012
A newly released analysis of laws covering hydraulic fracturing in Michigan and Ohio, produced by environmental law students and faculty at Michigan Law, aims to determine whether state laws are up to the task of balancing the benefits of producing more natural gas with the environmental risk of doing so through the controversial method of "fracking."
Hydraulic fracturing—which forces water and chemicals into the earth to break up tight geological formations that otherwise would prevent the extraction of oil and gas—has been in use in shallow wells in Michigan for more than 30 years. But the method is now being used in deeper wells and also in wells drilled horizontally, which raises a number of issues, said Sara Gosman, a Michigan Law lecturer and a water resources attorney with the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). Gosman authored the report with Michigan Law students Scott Robinson, 3L, and Susie Shutts, 3L, along with recent Michigan Law grad Joey Friedmann, '12.
The report was released June 21 during a conference call with reporters from Ohio and Michigan.
"My goal for this project was to engage the students in an interesting legal research project that has real-world implications," Gosman said. "The students did a great job of thinking through the complex legal issues, particularly on such a controversial topic."
The report examined the three primary environmental risks of hydraulic fracturing for water resources: the large amount of fresh water that's removed permanently from the environment during the process, potential contamination from work in and around the wells, and disposal of chemically treated water after it's been used for fracking.
While the analysis found that Michigan and Ohio law provides some protections, it also determined that more could be done. Among other findings and recommendations:
- Given growing public interest in hydraulic fracturing, both Michigan and Ohio should have formal public comment periods built into the permitting process.
- The states, in conjunction with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, should ensure that operators have adequate financial responsibility for the wells they operate. Ohio already requires operators to carry liability and personal injury insurance.
- States in the Great Lakes Basin should study the impact of hydraulic fracturing's large water requirements, especially since the water used will not be directly returned to the source watershed. Ohio in particular should tighten regulations on water withdrawals.
- Chemical-treated water that returns to the surface as part of fracturing operations should be captured and, if not recycled for use in further fracturing operations, be placed in more strictly regulated injections wells.
- Both Michigan and Ohio should do more to encourage recycling of fracking fluid recaptured during the process.
Friedmann, who worked in mining finance before attending Michigan Law and is now working on his master's degree in U-M's Earth and Environmental Sciences Department, enjoyed the analysis process and feels optimistic about the future of hydraulic fracturing technology in Michigan and Ohio—provided it's properly regulated.
"I'm pro-production," Friedmann said. "I think there's no reason why fracking can't be done in a manner that is safe for the environment. It just needs a closer look. Like any technological advancement, it has a few question marks next to it, and the regulation in this country sometimes takes a while to catch up."
Shutts, now entering her third year at Michigan Law, spent about a year working on various phases of the project.
"It was great to work on this as a group, because we were able to talk through the technical parts of the process and the statutes and regulations together, and build off of one another's research," Shutts said.
The project was co-sponsored by NWF and Michigan Law. Financial support was provided by the National Sea Grant Law Center at the University of Mississippi. The views in the report are those of the authors and NWF.
Read the full report, and read about a fracking panel organized this spring by Michigan Law's Environmental Law & Policy Program.
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