Crews flare gas at a drilling site near Kalkaska, Michigan in July 2013. (AP Photo / Detroit News, Dale Young)
In an effort to address ongoing concerns about hydraulic fracturing development in Michigan, regulators here have proposed a series of changes to the state’s permitting instructions over the natural-gas extraction method.
But those with concerns — largely from the environmental community — over how permits are issued and what information is available to the public say the state is not going far enough and that proposed changes favor industry interests.
The rules would affect high-volume forms of fracking that use more than 100,000 gallons of “primary carrier” fluids.
The groups’ concerns reflect several categories of the process: That chemicals used aren’t required to be disclosed before drilling; that water-quality testing only takes place involving high-volume withdrawals; that the state’s system for reporting water withdrawals is not set up for operations that could require tens of millions of gallons; and that statutory rules for pooling resources below the surface should not apply to natural gas deposits in shale formations.
“From what we’ve read in the proposed rules, they’re not actually doing anything that makes fracking safer, but making some changes to make people feel better about it,” said Rita Chapman, clean water program director for the Michigan Sierra Club. “Some of them go backwards, even.”
This Mount Simon sandstone core shows one of the types of rock used for deep injection wells in Ohio. Photo by Kathiann M. Kowalski.
The oil and gas boom made possible by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, of horizontal wells has also led to dramatic growth in Ohio’s injection well disposal industry.
The state now has more than 200 active injection wells for oil and gas waste, as shown on an updated map released this month by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR). Over 16 million barrels of wastewater were pumped into Ohio rock formations in 2013 — an increase of more than 2 million barrels from the previous year. In the oil and gas industry one barrel equals 42 gallons.
Illinois native Sandra Steingraber has taken her fracking fight to New York. Photo by Dale Willman.
High-profile environmental activist, biologist and writer Sandra Steingraber – whom Rolling Stone dubbed the “Toxic Avenger” – gained her love of science and ecology in the Midwest, growing up in central Illinois and studying English and biology in Illinois before earning a biology doctorate at the University of Michigan.
Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring motivated Steingraber to “leave the lab,” as she says, and become an environmental activist and watchdog, as well as an author and poet. She survived bladder cancer — which she suspects was linked to water pollution — and gained international acclaim for her book Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment, overlaying cancer data and federal toxic release statistics.
In 2011 Steingraber won the prestigious Heinz Award. By then she was living in upstate New York, where high volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) for natural gas had exploded on the scene. Steingraber used the $100,000 prize to start the grassroots organization New Yorkers Against Fracking, a movement that soon spread to other states and launched her as an international leader on the issue.
Steingraber has spoken out against the controversial fracking regulations in her home state of Illinois, and traveled to Europe to meet with people dealing with drilling in their communities.
She spent a few days in late June at Carnegie Mellon University with a delegation of reporters convened by the Society of Environmental Journalists. The group heard from industry sources, academics, scientists, landowners and activists about the ways fracking has played out in the Marcellus shale, and what the future may hold.
The Flambeau River Papers mill in Park Falls, Wisconsin, uses combined heat and power to cut energy costs. (Photo by Wisconsin DNR via Creative Commons)
The hulking pulp and paper mills built many decades ago in Wisconsin, Michigan and other Midwestern states have had their share of environmental impacts.
But the mills were decades ahead of the game in adopting technology now seen as an effective tool to fight greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impacts. That would be the use of combined heat and power (CHP, also known as cogeneration), promoted by President Obama with a 2012 executive order and lauded by environmental and energy efficiency advocates.
Like any industry that generates electricity onsite, paper and pulp mills can take the heat from their generators to create steam that can be used to generate more electricity. More importantly, the heat can also be used directly for mills’ industrial processes, including for drying pulp.
“We were doing this before people were using the term ‘sustainability,’” said Jerry Schwartz, senior director of energy and environmental policy for the American Forest & Paper Association, a trade group. “A lot of it made economic sense.”
The Presque Isle power plant in Marquette, Michigan, receives a subsidy to continue operating amid grid concerns. (Photo by Adam Shoop via Creative Commons)
Scores of coal-fired power plants have been retired and taken off-line in recent years, and coal plant retirements are likely to continue or accelerate as deadlines for federal pollution regulations loom and states respond to the recently-proposed EPA carbon reduction plan.
Clean energy advocates and environmentalists typically cheer the closing of coal plants. But sometimes power plants – whether coal, natural gas or nuclear – are crucial to providing stability on the grid, even if their electricity is not needed to meet demand.
Hence regional transmission organizations (RTOs), the entities which oversee the grid and electricity markets for different regions, have the power to order a plant to keep running even if it is not financially viable.
Koda Energy, a combined heat and power plant in Shakopee, Minnesota, runs on biomass. (Craig Lassig for Midwest Energy News)
Sean Casten and his father, Tom Casten, could be called the country’s family dynasty of combined heat and power.
CHP, also known as cogeneration, is the under-appreciated practice of capturing and using waste heat from power generation to make clean electricity and steam, greatly increasing efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Sean Casten is president and CEO of Recycled Energy Development LLC (RED), an Illinois firm that constructs and runs CHP operations for industrial partners. RED’s chairman is Tom Casten, who has more than three decades under his belt in waste energy recovery.
RED’s most prominent current project is transforming the 125 MW utility complex at Kodak’s Eastman Business Park in Rochester, New York, which provides power and heat to more than 40 tenants and owners. RED is turning the century-old coal-fired station, which already includes co-generation with waste heat, into a highly efficient gas-fired CHP plant.
A pipeline failure caused an explosion in Fairport Harbor, Ohio in 2011. AP Photo/The News Herald, Michael Allen Blair. (click to enlarge)
Despite ongoing safety concerns and the urging of state regulators, the Ohio legislature has so far passed up an opportunity to impose tougher penalties on those who break safety rules for natural gas pipelines.
Ohio House Bill 483 had a provision to double penalties for safety violations when it was introduced in March. However, the version passed by the Ohio House of Representatives last month eliminated that section.
While fines for violations are rare, resource-strapped regulators say they provide a critical incentive for compliance with safety rules.
HB 483 is part of the Ohio’s Mid-Biennium Budget Review. The Ohio Senate Finance Committee reported the bill out this week, and the Senate passed it on Wednesday. Any differences between the House and Senate versions will require resolution by a conference committee.
Although most of HB 483 addresses other subjects, proposed and deleted energy issues touch on public safety and other concerns.
Stacy A. Cook, Vice President and General Manager of Koda Energy, at the combined heat and power biomass plant in Shakopee, Minnesota. Photo by Craig Lassig for Midwest Energy News. (click to enlarge)
When airborne dust ignited a silo explosion last spring at a biomass cogeneration plant in Minnesota, it was a major setback for the pioneering energy facility.
But the blast’s impact on Koda Energy’s bottom line was a blip compared to the prolonged strain of operating in an energy market that’s been turned upside down by fracking and cheap natural gas.
When a tribal government announced a partnership in 2006 to build the $60 million plant with one of the world’s largest malting companies, Rahr Malting Co., they were coming off a winter when spot prices for natural gas topped $13 per million Btu.
By the time the power plant began operating in May 2009, natural gas prices had plunged below $4. A few years later, in the spring of 2012, spot prices would briefly dip below $2.
Yellow flags mark the location of utility pipelines near Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Kathiann M. Kowalski)
Ohio’s natural gas utilities are replacing more than 11,000 miles of the state’s aging gas pipe mains, in an effort to reduce the risks for catastrophes like last month’s gas explosion in New York City.
However, three of Ohio’s four large natural gas utilities are only about a fourth of the way into their 20- and 25-year replacement programs.
And while few would argue about the need for new pipelines, the programs have hefty price tags. By the time all four programs finish, Ohio consumers will pay approximately $6 billion.
This solar array near Slayton, Minnesota provides power for Xcel Energy. Geronimo Energy is proposing similar projects to help meet peak energy needs. (Photo by CERTs via Creative Commons)
A proposed $250 million distributed solar project appears to have held its own in a Minnesota regulatory process that put it in competition with three natural gas options.
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission on Thursday ordered Xcel Energy to pursue a power-purchase agreement with a Twin Cities solar developer to meet part of its projected generation shortfall later this decade.
Geronimo Energy’s 100 megawatt solar proposal will be paired with one or more natural gas projects, to be determined later, to provide up to 500 megawatts of new generation Xcel expects to need by 2019.
The agreements would be subject to further review by the PUC.
“It’s a big win for us,” said Betsy Engelking, a vice president at Geronimo Energy. “We participated in an RFP against natural gas and we were selected.”