A Gold Rush for Natural Gas

  • If land leases are any indication, Michigan will be seeing a lot of these things dotting the landscape. A horizontal drilling rig in Appalachia. (Creative Commons photo by user Meridithw)

Michigan is getting ready for a potential new boom in drilling for natural gas, and some people say: what’s not to love? It’s home grown fuel. It can mean new jobs. It’s much cleaner burning and emits less carbon dioxide than coal or oil.

Listen to a Michigan Watch series on natural gas drilling

An investigative series by ProPublica

The EPA’s fracking page


Doug Houck is a spokesman for EnCana Corporation. That’s a Canadian company that’s been exploring for gas in Michigan.

“You know, natural gas is the cleanest burning fossil fuel we have, it’s very plentiful. Natural gas is going to be a key part of our energy portfolio for many, many years to come.”

Okay, so he’s a gas guy… so you’d expect him to be talking it up. But a lot of scientists and even some environmentalists agree with him.

Hugh McDiarmid is with the Michigan Environmental Council.

“There are lots of benefits to this in terms of using homegrown energy that we extract and you know, natural gas is a less polluting fuel than some of the traditional fossil fuels.”

But he’s watching this latest buzz around natural gas with some caution. We’ve been drilling for gas at shallow levels in Michigan for 80 years… but there’s a new game in town.

It’s because of gas reserves that have been discovered much farther down. The gas is trapped in tight shale rock formations. To get to the gas, drillers use something called horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking for short.

Horizontal fracking pumps millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into a well under high pressure to force open the rock and extract the gas.

Hugh McDiarmid says he’s worried about that.

“It’s going to use a lot more water, it’s going to require the transport of a lot more dangerous chemicals. And a lot of these endeavors are exempt from a lot of the pollution laws other industries have to follow.”

Gas companies don’t have to tell us the exact chemicals they’re pumping into the wells. The Environmental Protection Agency is trying to get that information. Officials are asking the companies to just tell them, voluntarily.

And even the EPA doesn’t know what the risks are to drinking water. It’s just now starting to study that.

Even with any risks, some experts say natural gas is the best way to go for energy security and jobs.

Terry Engelder is a professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University. He thinks drilling for these new gas reserves deep underground is worth it. But he says the industry needs to do more to reassure the public.

“What we need is a situation where industry understands the public has zero tolerance for pollution, particularly water pollution. This is a heavy industry that will have an effect.”

So he says if you decide to lease your land for gas drilling… you’re going to notice it. Some trees will be cleared from your land and there will be a lot of noise and truck traffic.

And some people say although natural gas IS cleaner than coal or oil… it’s still a fossil fuel. So we’re still burning a fuel that’s releasing carbon dioxide… and adding to the global warming problem.

Cyndi Roper is the Michigan Director of the group Clean Water Action. She says she’d like the U-S to get off fossil fuels. But she’s not completely against using natural gas as a bridge away from coal and oil… moving toward more wind and solar power.

“So we’re willing to look at this as a part of a plan for moving away from the dependence. In order to do that we want to make sure it’s safe and we are not putting these communities and the people in jeopardy.”

State officials say we’re ready for this new kind of drilling… and it can be done safely.

But Cyndi Roper says before a drilling boom happens… she wants to make sure the regulations that are in place will be strong enough.

On Thursday, we’ll hear from landowners in Northern Michigan who have mixed feelings about gas drilling.