Struggle on to ban fracking in Michigan

Hundreds of grassroots activists across Michigan are working to make this state the second, after Vermont, to ban horizontal hydraulic fracturing — “fracking.” Committee to Ban Fracking members are petitioning to place a fracking ban on the November ballot.

Horizontal fracturing technology is relatively new, despite industry assertions that it has been around for 60 years. Vertical fracturing — whereby pressurized water is used to drill straight down into the earth’s shale rock layers to release pockets of natural gas and force the methane up to the surface — has been used for decades.

Horizontal fracking differs in that the drilling is deeper and continues horizontally for one or two miles after reaching the shale. This requires millions of gallons of freshwater; vertical fracturing uses around 5,000 gallons.

While early hydraulic fracking used water with gasoline and napalm added, the water for horizontal fracking is laced with hundreds of toxic chemicals that make it unpurifiable for human use. The companies don’t have to inform the public about the chemicals; they are protected as “trade secrets.” Benzene, lead, mercury, uranium, toluene, arsenic, radioactivity, uncaptured methane and other health hazards have been found in frack wastewater. The used “slick water” stored in underground wells has caused earthquakes in Ohio. Frackers are depleting the world’s precious freshwater.

Widespread horizontal drilling in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale and Ohio’s Utica Shale has led to lawsuits over sickened children and adults, livestock fatalities and contaminated water.

Energy companies claim that fracking can help solve the climate change crisis. Methane fuel is clean burning, unlike coal and petroleum. However, during fracking some methane escapes into the atmosphere, where its impact on global warming — its greenhouse effect — is many times worse than carbon-based fuels.

Why frack Michigan?

Michigan is the eleventh-largest state and the ninth most populous. Of the state’s 36 million acres, 7.7 million are public lands. State-owned lands comprise 4.5 million acres — 12 percent of the state’s territory. While Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources boasts of extensive miles of rivers and Great Lakes coastline, 11,000 inland lakes, 75,000 acres of sand dunes and 3.9 million acres of forest, it isn’t telling the whole story.

The DNR has leased 1 million acres of public lands to Encana and Chesapeake Energy. These companies are “among the biggest players nationwide,” reported Reuters on June 25, 2012. Michigan is the latest frontier in “the largest U.S. land grab since the Gold Rush of the 1850s.” Encana is seeking a minimum of 500 fracking permits from the DNR and may seek up to 1,700. Energy monopolies are promising jobs so they can convince struggling Michiganians to ignore scientific evidence of fracking’s dangers.

These companies are eager to drill Michigan’s largely untapped Collingwood Shale. The biggest concentration of shale gas is located in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula’s northern part, but fracking permits have been applied for as far south as Oakland County, which abuts Detroit.

The Collingwood Shale is much deeper below the earth’s surface than the Marcellus Shale. While a typical fracking operation in the Marcellus Shale uses 5 million gallons of water per frack, Encana has set a world record in Michigan by using 23 million gallons.

This wouldn’t seem cost-effective, so why frack in Michigan? One answer is the state’s abundance of groundwater. Once a company wins a land lease bid, all water in the parcel is free. Bidding on public lands starts at only $13 an acre. Recently, Encana and Chesapeake were exposed for illegally agreeing not to bid against one another. The state makes out on the royalties once operations begin.

That Ohio and Pennsylvania are running out of space for wastewater storage is another factor in Michigan’s frack land grab. A third motive is the push to reverse the U.S. ban on natural gas exports, which secretary of energy, Ernest Moniz, supports. This would resuscitate an industry in which capitalist overproduction has forced prices — and profits — to fall. Profits from exporting natural gas will be even more lucrative than its sale on the domestic market.

The people of Michigan will be the big losers. Their water resources will be stolen and their health endangered. The pristine dunes, lakes, rivers, forests and beautiful state parks cover much of the area above the Collingwood Shale. Michigan law defines minerals as the “dominant estate.” Frackers can drill under private residences if the homeowners only own surface rights and not the mineral rights to what lies below.

However, these facts are causing many people to become anti-corporate activists. Recently, Todd Bazzett told Michigan Emergency Committee Against War and Injustice members that he had thought Committee to Ban Fracking in Michigan leaders were “paranoid,” but, “the more I learned, the more I saw there was good reason to be paranoid.” Bazzett is the committee’s coordinator for Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties — Detroit and the adjacent suburbs.

Bazzett and many committee volunteers are filling up the petitions at community festivals, political rallies, farmers’ markets, LGBTQ Pride events and elsewhere. They are building a statewide movement to challenge the profit-hungry energy monopolies and demand that people and the environment come first.