HARRISVILLE - The Alcona County commissioners got their first look at horizontal hydraulic fracturing- a multi-step drilling method used to release natural gas and oil from shale deep underground. One of the strongest criticisms about fracking is that it consumes tremendous amounts of water that cannot be reused, a state geologist said Wednesday.
The informational session was set up after a Harrisville resident urged commissioners to learn more about the controversial mining technique.
"I'm not necessarily for it and I'm not necessarily against it," board Chair Kevin Boyat said.
But he said he and fellow commissioners needed to know more about it, because it is occurring in the county.
The 45-minute presentation by geologist Steve Buyze of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality took the commissioners through the drilling process step by step.
"At some point you have to balance the economic impact, the jobs versus the environment," Buyze said, adding that Michigan earned $48 million a year in oil and gas fees between 1986 and 2001.
In what he called his first presentation in public, Buyze started by telling the commissioners he was a native of Michigan, graduating from high school in Kalkaska County. After serving in the military, he earned a degree from the University of Wyoming, and eventually joined the state's Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals.
Today, Buyze oversees 1,500 wells and 100 related facilities in Alpena and Alcona counties, and said that fracking is being done two miles from his home.
Using a powerpoint presentation, the geologist showed how a drilling company sets up an operation on a large pad. A well-water collection system, as well as a slurry mixer and pumping trucks are connected together with the objective of drilling past the aquifer and other geological layers to reach the Utica shade layer, which contains natural gas. In some parts of the state, the shade can be two miles underground, although in Alcona County, wells are much shallower.
The well is drilled and lined in stages, creating a non-polluting pathway through areas containing water. Then, in horizontal fracking, the drill takes a 90 degree turn and runs horizontally through the layer of shale. A load of bullet-like explosives are set off to create the first fractures, and then the rock is further broken apart by fracking fluid injected under high pressure.
The solution consists of 99.5 percent water and fine sand. The remaining portion is made up of chemicals, including a biocide to kill organisms and prevent the build up of dangerous gases created by decomposition. Other chemicals include friction reducers, wetting solutions, scale inhibitors, corrosion inhibitors and acids.
Buyze said while the exact proportions of additives is a trade secret, the chemicals are posted on a list at each well in the event of an emergency so first responders can be alerted to the hazards.
Alcona County wells are about 1,500 feet deep and require about 50,000 gallons of water , he said. But wells that go down two miles consume 25 million gallons of water .
To provide a mental image of that volume, Buyze said the City of New York consumes that amount of water every 35 minutes.
The drilling companies extract about 25 percent of the fluid back out of the ground, and store it in special, on-site tanks, until it can be moved to a special disposal well.
Alcona County has 13 such wells, he said.
"It sounds like a lot of water, but you're not getting it back," he said.
He said at this time there are spills at 15 open sites in the county. Before they can be treated, drilling experts have to determine whether it is a horizontal or a vertical spill, then analyze how much risk is involved by factoring in the presence of contaminates in parts per million.
"Hydrocarbon spills are easy to clean up but the brine spills are hard," he said, comparing oil spills to fracking fluid spills.
Betsy Lehndorff can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5693. Follow Betsy on Twitter @bl_alpenanews.