Hydraulic fracturing integrated assessment is excellent resource for local officials

A new draft report about hydraulic fracturing state-level policy options provides excellent background for local planning officials trying to address local oil and gas development issues.

Over the past couple of years, in response to resident’s concerns about hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, some planning commissions and township boards have been developing local regulations aimed at reducing the potential impacts in their community.

Fracking is the oil and gas development technique where large volumes of  water mixed with sand and chemicals are pumped under high pressure to release deep oil and gas reserves. Although not widely used in Michigan, the method is controversial because of concerns about potential environmental and human health impacts.

State laws greatly restrict local government authority to regulate oil and gas development, including fracking, through zoning and other ordinances. Those preemptions are not absolute, although the opportunities for local regulation of oil and gas development and fracking are limited.

Before embarking on local regulation development, it is worthwhile for local officials to understand the state regulatory framework, and state-level policy options. The University of Michigan Graham Sustainability Institute recently published a draft report - the Hydraulic Fracturing in Michigan Integrated Assessment – that is an excellent resource for local officials wishing to better understand the issues and state policy alternatives. (The current version is a draft report and will likely be revised before the final document is published late spring or early summer 2015.)

The integrated assessment method used by the UM team explores the environmental, social and economic aspects of real-world sustainability issues (such as hydraulic fracturing). The step-by-step approach includes technical research and, importantly, stakeholder input. This specific effort is designed to address the question, “What are the best environmental, economic, social and technological approaches for managing hydraulic fracturing in the State of Michigan?”

Three major policy categories are covered in the draft report:

  • Public participation – Ways to incorporate public values in unconventional shale gas development policy, public input approaches in state land leasing, and public participation in the well permitting process.
  • Water resources -  Alternatives for modifying the water withdrawal approval process, and managing wastewater and water quality
  • Chemical use – Options for the way chemical information is disclosed and communicated, siting and construction requirements, and planning, response and liability policies.

The assessment does not advocate for specific policy options, rather presents information about strengths, weaknesses and outcomes of each. A series of technical reports published in 2013 provided background information used to develop policy options.

In a contentious township planning commission or township board meeting, where advocates on both sides of the issue are suggesting action, it’s difficult for local officials to make informed decisions under pressure. One option in these situations is for decision makers to pause and seek non-biased information to better evaluate the issues and policy choices, before making formal resolutions or regulations. Although the hydraulic fracturing integrated assessment is a bit of a heavy read – more than 200 pages – it provides excellent context for planning officials and professional planners as they consider local approaches.

Michigan State University Extension has additional information about this and other topics on the oil and gas information page.

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