ROCKFORD — The conversation threatened to spiral out of control during the question-and-answer period of a contentious seminar on hydraulic fracturing Monday evening at Rockford High School.
More than 100 area residents turned out to hear from author Maryann Lesert, who extensively studied the topic while doing research for an upcoming novel.
Lesert, who teaches at Grand Rapids Community College, was in town at the behest of three area conservation groups; Citizens for Responsible Resource Management (CRRM), Kent County Water Conservation (KCWC), and Mutual Aid of Grand Rapids (MAGR).
Lesert began her talk by explaining exactly what fracking is, using a video gleaned from an oil and gas producer’s website. The process — greatly simplified — involves drilling and sinking a pipeline vertically beneath the earth, then veering off horizontally in several directions from the main shaft, like spokes in a bicycle wheel.
More than 5 million gallons of water, tons of sand and hundreds of chemicals — the contents of which the oil and gas industry guard as a trade secret — are injected into the pipe. A series of explosions in the horizontal section of pipe produce fractures in the shale layer.
As much as 75 percent of the water, sand and chemicals flow back from the well and must be hauled away or, in some cases, reinjected back into the earth.
Many scientists and environmentalists — Lesert included — say this process puts ground water at risk of contamination from chemicals such as methane and benzene, as well as whatever other proprietary chemicals are put there by the oil and gas companies.
Additionally, many who have studied the issue contend methane gas release creates air pollution, adding to the already problematic greenhouse effect.
Lesert noted at least some of the evidence gathered during her many visits over the past year to fracking sites is anecdotal. The photos she presented to the audience gathered in Rockford, however, induced a strong reaction. Scenes of acre after acre of previously pristine state forest transformed to bulldozed, trash-filled pits littered with industrial detritus brought tears to the eyes of some in attendance.
“If you have heard the myth that they can’t put a fracking well on state forest land, I’m here to bust that myth,” Lesert said. “They can. The public has not been involved in the process of what this state land is used for, and that violates the public trust.”
Lesert went on to point out the myriad of problems that have occurred in Pennsylvania following decades of fracking there. Environmentalists have cited issues such as mutations in wildlife, water, ground and air pollution and even earthquakes.
No representatives from the oil and gas industries were on hand to provide an opposing viewpoint. Following the meeting, a man identifying himself as a representative of the Michigan Oil & Gas Producer’s Education Foundation passed out pro-fracking pamphlets. However, he declined to give his name or comment, saying only, “We’re not supposed to give any quotes to the media.”
According to the pamphlet the man was distributing, hydraulic fracturing has been employed in Michigan since the 1950s, referring for the most part to straight, vertical wells. The horizontal additions, the pamphlet states, are used where called for by “geologic conditions and the economic reality of a particular situation.”
In October 2012, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources leased public land for oil and gas industrialization in areas within Cannonsburg State Game Area, along the Rogue River and spots throughout the White Pine Trail.
Some state legislators, such as Rep. Rick Outman, R-Six Lakes, have come out in support of fracking, saying it poses no real danger to the environment and is good for Michigan’s economy.
Lesert contends that the problem is government officials aren’t doing their “homework.”
“Most people just feel their local legislators lack the necessary information,” Lesert said. “If they had it, they might know better than to think the process is safe.”
Opinions on the fracking process tend to be varied and strong. A post on the Daily News’ Facebook page announcing this story elicited a host of comments, both for and against the process.
Scott Lippert wrote: “I worked for a company back in 1982 in Oklahoma that fracked wells. It was a process to try to increase production from a well … it was sort of a last-ditch effort to make them productive again. They have been fracking wells for decades.”
Lisa Tater commented that fracking is not about “greed,” but rather “trying to become as energy independent as possible. Nothing is being done to lower gas prices. I’m simply tired of budgeting and going without in order to put gas in my car. Frack away.”
Jackie Benson Bissonette expressed a more cautious opinion, writing: “I wish I knew what chemicals they were injecting into the ground. The gas companies say it is proprietary, I say we have a right to know.”
Several present at yesterday’s Rockford seminar expressed concern over the fact that all the results of fracking are not yet known and what evidence does exist shows cause for genuine concern.
Lesert closed her comments by saying, “There is no ‘away.’ We’ve learned this before. There is only water, soil and sky, and all of us as creatures.”