Michigan's draft fracking rules: weak sauce and no beef

Michigan has finally gotten around to proposing new regulations for fracking, but unfortunately for Michiganders, the first three words they bring to mind are, where’s the beef?  Fracking is increasingly posing a threat to health and quality of life in the state; but the draft regulations are not much help, as NRDC explained in comments  filed late last week.

Of course, fracking in Michigan is in principle nothing new, and has been going on in some form for decades.  However, over time the magnitude of the operations – and the ensuing harm to the communities that have to live with them – has been steadily on the rise.  Increasingly, Michigan fracking has been leaving a trail of damaged roads, smog, and toxic wastewater in its wake.  The rules proposed by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality are aimed specifically at the larger-scale “high volume” fracking operations that have become increasingly prevalent.

The problem in the first instance is that, while we certainly have enough information to know that fracking is a threat, we don’t have enough to conclude that regulation of any sort can sufficiently address that threat -- much less that the limited smattering of requirements offered up by MDEQ is enough.  The science identifying and quantifying the harm from fracking is only starting to come in, but what we know so far is sobering.  As my colleague Kate Sinding has pointed out, despite the breakneck expansion of fracking across the country, there has been shockingly little scientific study on the ways that it may be harming human health and the environment.  Because much of the research is only beginning to be done now—including ongoing studies by the U.S. EPA, the University of Michigan’s Graham Institute, and other prominent institutions—NRDC has long called for a moratorium on all permitting of new or expanded  fracking until this critical analysis can be performed.

MDEQ, however, seems bound and determined not to let high risk and limited knowledge stand in the way of handing out more fracking permits.   Even within the confines of current limited knowledge about means to mitigate fracking risks, the draft rules are pretty weak sauce.  They only half-heartedly address a few of the more egregious problems with the process, all in all offering very little in the way of genuine public protection.  While bits and pieces of the regulations may be better than the status quo (our colleagues at other environmental organizations have pointed out a few instances of that in their comments), “better than nothing” is not, shall we say, the ideal standard to apply when dealing with high-risk activities that threaten public health.  

Here are just a few examples of rather large gaping holes in the proposed regulations:

  •  Air Pollution from Fracking – The proposal does not address fracking-related air pollution at all.  That’s a pretty serious omission given that a growing body of scientific studies are documenting toxic air pollutants at or near fracking sites at levels that pose increased risks of cancer and other health problems (see, for example, here).   Not to mention the smog-producing pollutants generated in large volumes by fracking, which has already resulted in ozone spikes in Wyoming fracking country that are worse than LA’s.
  •  Fracking-related earthquakes – Earthquakes linked to the disposal of fracking wastewater have been a big concern recently, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at MDEQ’s proposed rules, which contain nothing at all to address that problem.
  • Local community control --  MDEQ’s proposal gives local Michigander communities  no say in whether or how fracking happens within their borders.   It doesn’t have to be like that, as there is increasing recognition elsewhere that community input regarding fracking, which can be tremendously disruptive, is critical to residents’ well-being (for example, see these huge recent court victories in New York and Pennsylvania).  The new MDEQ rules have no provisions even requiring solicitation of local feedback, much less requiring that the Department actually listen to and act upon such feedback.
  • Toxic wastewater – It’s not news that flowback and other wastewater from fracking operations is highly toxic—containing corrosive salts, heavy metals, and naturally occurring radioactive materials, just to name a few nasties—or that the volumes of such water from potential fracking in Michigan could reach into the billions of gallons.  But instead of determining whether this flood of wastewater deserves to be treated as  hazardous waste, MDEQ persists in keeping open a regulatory loophole for fracking that exempts wastewater from the state’s hazardous waste laws.

 Because these rules are not yet final, there’s still time for MDEQ to hit the pause button on fracking while it evaluates the science concerning risks of fracking and the potential to mitigate those risks that is just starting to come in.  We hope the state does just that, so it can make fully informed decisions as to the best policies to protect Michiganders, who deserve better than regulatory shooting first and asking questions later.