Mixed Feelings About Drilling for Natural Gas

  • Natural gas drilling rig in Wyoming (Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management).

By now, you may have heard that Northern Michigan is poised for a boom in natural gas production. Developers have paid a record amount of bonuses for drilling rights on state and private land. At first, property owners focused on what is fair payment, but, as Bob Allen reports, they’re now questioning how drilling will affect their land and water.


It’s mostly large landowners, especially farmers, who’ve been approached to lease their mineral rights. Ed Krupka grew up on this 80 acre farm in Leelanau County, and he’s weighing the pros and cons of the leasing offers he’s received.

“I have four contracts sitting on my office desk right now. All look very similar.”

If a gas well were to be drilled on his land, he says, it would mean scraping away the topsoil and removing fruit trees from about seven acres, but aside from loss of productive land he’s also worried about his water.

Drillers will use a technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to get at natural gas trapped in tight rock formations as much as two miles down.

Fracking pumps millions of gallons of fluid into a well under high pressure to force open the rock and capture more of the gas.

Drillers say they take numerous precautions to protect drinking water, but for the last couple of years, stories have emerged about erupting gas wells, contaminated water and people and animals getting sick.

Ed Krupka says an article in Vanity Fair magazine about a family in Pennsylvania got his attention.

“Their drinking water turned brown. Their daughter started feeling nauseous after showers. And it just makes you wonder, you want some guarantees or you want to know as much information about what they’re going to do on your land as you possibly can.”

People in the oil and gas industry say none of those things are likely to happen in Michigan. Darel Willison is with Superior Well Services in Gaylord. He was in charge of the frack job for the first well in Michigan drilled to what’s called the Collingwood Shale formation, and he told a meeting of landowners these gas wells are so deep that the fracking fluid cannot make its way back up through layers of rock to contaminate drinking water.

“It’s an impossibility people. Too many rocks in there. The frack job down here in the Collingswood will never reach the fresh water zones. Cannot happen.”

That reassures some landowners who prefer to stress the positives of a potential new gas play.

Glen La Cross says it will create more jobs and economic activity at a time when that’s sorely needed. He owns Leelanau Fruit, a company that processes cherries and apples near Suttons Bay.

“I am 100% supportive of it. The hydraulic fracturing I think is being blown up quite a bit. I think that until it’s proven this is doing some damage I think we have to be positive and move forward and explore these resources.”

If this new gas play takes off and pays big, the extra revenue could help some older farmers keep their land instead of selling it off to pay for their retirement.

Ed Krupka likes that possibility, but he still worries about the impacts not just from drilling new wells but from the pipelines and processing plants and waste disposal that also goes with it, and he recognizes that the region’s economy, and not just the farm economy, depends on clean fresh water.

“We live here in the middle of water, and you can’t do too much without affecting the water here.”
Bob Allen, The Environment Report.
Rebecca Williams: By the way, leases for drilling on state land will be going up on the auction block at the end of October. The spring auction brought in a record amount of money.