BY GLENN PUIT
TRAVERSE CITY — An energy company intends to use a process called deep hydraulic fracturing in 13 new wells in Kalkaska County to aid its search for natural gas, an effort that will require more than 300 million gallons of groundwater for production.
Encana Oil & Gas’ new applications for fracking permits — and the amount of proposed groundwater — raised concerns among some local residents.
“It’s pretty astounding,” said Chris Grobbel, a Traverse City-based environmental consultant. “A small-sized municipality is going to use about 100 million gallons annually. It’s three times the quantity … it’s quite a substantial amount.”
Hydraulic fracturing involves pumping water, sand and chemicals into an oil or gas formation deep underground to retrieve natural gas and other valuable materials. Paul Brady, 45, of Kalkaska County’s Bear Lake Township, closely monitors state filings and Encana’s publicly disclosed documents about its hydraulic fracturing wells. Three wells already drilled in a nearby township consumed 42 million gallons of water over a two-year period.
Brady contends Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials don’t adequately regulate wells, given the large volumes of water used, and that public documents show Encana’s wells all fail a water withdrawal assessment measurement designed to protect the state’s water resources.
“It’s extremely irresponsible to allow the withdrawal of our groundwater at such a magnitude without any type of cumulative impact study being done,” Brady said.
Encana spokeswoman Bridget Ford said the company follows state regulations. The company has two years to drill wells once they obtain approval.
“The water withdrawals we initially applied for were based on the current data that we had,” Ford said. “Under the DEQ guidelines, we did request additional water once we obtained additional data about the lateral length of our wells. We were still within the guidelines of the (state’s) water assessment tool for each of the wells we’ve completed to date.”
DEQ officials said they closely regulate wells that use the fracking procedure.
“We are concerned with ... any water use like that,” said Rick Henderson, a field operations supervisor for the DEQ’s Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals. “Under no circumstances are we going to allow an adverse resource impact.”
The state of Michigan uses what’s called a Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool to estimate the impact of a water withdrawal on nearby streams and rivers. That tool is required for water withdrawals of 70 gallons per-minute or more. A proposed water withdrawal that fails the assessment is subjected to what’s known as a site specific review.
The DEQ’s Water Resources Division reviews data on the geology and hydrology of the area where the water withdrawal is proposed, then discerns if the withdrawal will harm water resources in the given area.
Andy LeBaron, an environmental quality analyst with the DEQ’s water resources division, said the office receives “hundreds and hundreds” of cases annually that necessitate specific review. He said his office denied 10 or 11 withdrawals in the last three years and that state policy that dictates which withdrawals can be denied and which can’t is well-defined.
“The number we deny or approve is strictly dependent on the legally available amount of water in the given watershed,” LeBaron said. “It’s a local watershed-based decision.”
The volume of water Encana is using prompts questions from some about the state’s regulatory system. James Olson, an environmental attorney in Traverse City, believes the assessment tool is flawed. Olson said water flow data on which it relies are overstated, withdrawal impacts are understated, and the state does not adequately consider the cumulative impact of multiple water withdrawals.
“If you read the fine print, the standard is you are allowed to take any amount of water out of a stream as long as it doesn’t kill more than 2 to 5 percent of the characteristic fish population,” Olson said. “You can do a lot of damage before you kill 2 to 5 percent of the fish population.”
Others, in turn, dispute Olson’s position.
“Wrong,” Henderson said when told of Olson’s comments about flawed assessment data, as well as his contention that regulators don’t consider cumulative impacts.
Henderson said a failing assessment mark in certain streams only means the withdrawal needs closer analysis.
Hal Fitch, director of the DEQ’s office of Oil, Gas and Minerals, said during a recent fracking forum held by the Michigan Ground Water Association in Traverse City that the assessment tool is not perfect, but is considered a model by officials in many states.