News Story

Lighting Water On Fire? Gas In Water Supplies Existed Long Before Fracking

Part three: Main fear about process existed before hydraulic fracturing

This is the third article in a series looking at the issue of fracking in Michigan. Part one discussed earthquakes, water usage and misinformation in the media about the process. Part two discussed the legitimate debates over emissions, flowback and risk.

A pamphlet published by the state of Michigan reports on something frightening: "Problems Associated With Natural Gas In Michigan."

The publication discusses natural gas leaking into homes, schools and municipal water systems with an "explosion hazard" that is "not simply based on conjecture; there were many reports of explosions in homes in the area from gas in domestic well systems."

The occurrence of methane in water supply wells and as ground seepage in various localities in the state has been recognized for many years ... The major problem has been the presence of methane with the flammable and explosive hazards associated with this gas as the primary hazard.

A result of deep, horizontal fracking in the state?

No. The pamphlet was published in 1965.

It goes on to discuss how the issue of natural gas in water supplies was mitigated or solved.

When people think about fracking they often picture scenes of people appearing to ignite water coming out of their faucets. But experts say that those scenes, made popular by the wildly disingenuous film "Gasland," have nothing to do with the extraction process.

Terry Engelder, a professor of geosciences at Penn State University said that "all reasonably objective reporters regard the film as misinformation."

Anthony Ingraffea, a professor of engineering at Cornell University, said, "In the strict sense of the word, that [lighting water on fire] has nothing to do with the word [fracking]."

Donald Siegel, a professor of Earth sciences at Syracuse University, noted that while "gas migration to home water supplies looked spectacular when lit up like a candle … study after study has shown that many homes have groundwater naturally with methane in it, and many with methane sufficient to set on fire."

While there are areas of legitimate debate over the hydraulic fracturing process, most experts I talked to did not see drinking water contamination as a major problem. And in many states, people have dealt with methane in the water supply long before gas drilling took place.

In Michigan, the state has been warning people about methane leaks for decades. The picture on the cover of the 1965 pamphlet is nearby and reads, "Gas from natural deposits is sometimes emitted directly from water faucets in homes, as shown in the photograph. The gas, methane, is highly flammable and can create an explosion hazard."

Michael Heberling, president of the Baker College Center for Graduate Studies and an adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said the fracking process provides access to 4.2 quadrillion cubic feet of natural gas across the United States.

"This represents a 175 year supply at the current consumption rate," Heberling said. "Groundwater aquifers sit thousands of feet above the level that the fracking takes place … companies construct wells with steel-surface casings to prevent migration of any contaminated water."

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.