Michigan Tech observes World Water Day

HOUGHTON – Since the release of the documentary “GasLand” in 2010, hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as fracking, has been in the public spotlight.

With concerns such as flaming faucets, earthquakes and destroying aquifers, using fracking to extract unconventional oil and gas from deep within the earth causes concern for many. These concerns, according to Wayne Pennington, dean of engineering at Michigan Technological University, are largely unfounded.

“It’s a shame in my opinion that (“GasLand”) was shown here because that’s been thoroughly debunked, almost all of it,” Pennington said in a talk at Michigan Tech Monday. “Since 1948 people have been doing this and it works.”

As the name suggests, hydraulic fracturing involves drilling into non-porous layers of the earth – made up of materials such as rock and shale – and creating multiple fractures to allow access to gas and oil. This practice has been criticized for, among other things, causing earthquakes.

Pennington agreed, saying the practice does cause earthquakes of about magnitude minus two, equivalent to a person jumping off of an average-height table, to minus three, equivalent to knocking over a gallon of milk.

“So there you’ve got a perspective on the size of these earthquakes – nobody even feels them, nobody is damaged by them,” he said.

There have been four cases since 1948 where larger-scale earthquakes were caused by fracking. Those cases generally occurred along areas where there were already existing fault lines and have been studied to determine what should have been done differently.

“There have been hundreds of thousands of frack jobs done around the world and we know of only about four that have caused earthquakes by themselves, and those have been extremely small and extraordinarily thoroughly studied,” Pennington said.

Many of the environmental concerns associated with fracking are well-founded but also easily avoidable, Pennington explained. Issues such as close well spacing, proper water disposal, fugitive methane and proximity to communities are easily avoided by following regulations that are already in place and accepting that proper disposal is simply a cost of doing business. Although regulations were not as strict in 1948, recent operations have been subject to more oversight to ensure safety and compliance.

Recent opposition, some spurred by “GasLand,” includes things like earthquakes, destroying of aquifers and even flaming faucets. The flaming faucets shown in “GasLand,” Pennington said, were from an area in Colorado and caused by methane gas from coal bed methane, not fracking.

With the exception of four cases, the earthquakes caused by fracking are too small to even be felt and with proper control, there is “no way” fracking will destroy aquifers.

“The bottom line is that the United States is one of the only countries that has reduced its carbon dioxide emissions over the last few years,” Pennington said. “It is because of the replacement of coal with natural gas.”

Pennington’s lecture is just one in a series of events at Michigan Tech celebrating World Water Day. Rob Howarth of Cornell University will present a lecture on the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. at Michigan Tech’s Dow Environmental Sciences and Engineering Building, room 641. From 10 a.m. to noon Thursday Pennington, Howarth and Frank Ettawageshik, United Tribes of Michigan, will participate in a panel discussion on hydraulic fracturing at the Great Lakes Research Center, room 202, followed by a lecture on indigenous water rights and sovereignty by Ettawageshik at 12:35 p.m.

For more information and a full schedule of World Water Day events, visit mtcws.mtu.edu.