Drilling plan in Mich. spurs controversy

Up to 500 wells studied for N. Lower Peninsula

A plume of gas burns as work progresses at an Encana Corp. tracking site in  Michigan.
A plume of gas burns as work progresses at an Encana Corp. tracking site in Michigan.

LANSING — A proposal to drill as many as 500 wells in Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula using hydraulic fracturing is drawing attention and criticism from environmentalists.

Encana Corp., which has drilled about a dozen wells since 2009, has proposed the new wells, The Detroit News reported, and spokesman Doug Hock says the company is “in the early stages” of new drilling in Michigan.

Until “we do the exploration, we won’t know whether we have something that can scale up and be economic,” he said.

Calgary, Alberta-based Encana is focusing on Michigan’s Antrim and Collingwood shale formations, which run from the tip of the Lower Peninsula to the middle of the state. The company’s mineral rights are mostly in Cheboygan, Emmet, Kalkaska, and Missaukee counties.

Hydraulic fracturing, widely known as “fracking,” is a process that releases natural gas trapped in deep underground rock formations, pumping huge volumes of water laced with chemicals and sand at high pressure into wells.

State regulators and industry representatives say the process is environmentally sound, but critics say it can pollute surface and ground water and threaten air and soil quality.

“It’s intense industrial resource use, intense water use unprecedented in Michigan,” said Traverse City environmental lawyer Jim Olson, who represents an outdoors organization that wants to protect the Jordan River Valley in Antrim County. “We need to get a handle on this way ahead of time.”

Mr. Olson last September urged the state’s Natural Resources Commission to slow down mineral rights leasing on public lands and declare off-limits state game reserves, recreational and natural areas he characterizes as Michigan’s “crown jewels.”

The state Department of Natural Resources, which oversees mineral rights, is careful about where drilling is permitted in Michigan, spokesman Ed Golder said.

Special areas — such as critical dunes, Great Lakes bottom lands, and the Jordan River Valley — are off-limits.

“We do a thorough analysis of the land we lease and what type of use should be allowed,” Mr. Golder said.

The state Department of Environmental Quality has said fracking has been used in about 12,000 Michigan wells over the past 50 years without harming the environment. But the industry is stepping up drilling in shale formations deeper than most that were previously targeted, requiring greater volumes of water.

Michigan House bills would tighten state regulation of hydraulic fracturing.