Speer: Balancing environment, energy growth

Was I experiencing a classic segment of the “Twilight Zone” as I pulled into the motel parking lot last week?

How else would you explain a parking lot filled with pickup after pickup, most crusted in a layer of mud and dirt? I know it was late and I was tired as I turned into the motel’s driveway in Waynesburg, Pa., but honestly the parking lot of 75 or so spaces was filled to capacity and I was the third non-pickup to call a parking spot my own that evening.

Welcome to the oil and gas boom across Appalachia right now.

If anyone doubts the potential impact from that energy explosion, I invite them to join me on a trip back from where I visited this past week.

When I made advance motel reservations, I wondered why I had trouble finding available motel rooms in locations hardly known as tourism hot spots. Upon arriving in western Pennsylvania, east Ohio and the Panhandle of West Virginia, I soon discovered why – all the rooms were being used by transient employees working the oil and gas fields.

To my amazement many new motels had been constructed in towns that normally should not be able to support more than one or two, and also to my amazement, all were filled to capacity.

The narrow and windy roads back in that region always have contained their fair share of coal trucks that like to rumble along as if running to a fire, but now mixed into the traffic mix on those scenic two lanes were tanker after tanker. Some were hauling water – a necessary component to the fracking process – to the drilling sites.

With the region but a few weeks into spring, judging by all the truck traffic I experienced on the roads it was easy to understand why the roads were crumbling and filled with potholes and craters.

Yesterday it was the Dakotas. Today it is Appalachia. Tomorrow it is, potentially, Michigan – and that is why all of us needs to pay close attention to that industry. This week, for instance, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality proposed changes to some rules involving fracking that should give residents more information about the chemicals being used by a company in the fracking process.

While Michigan has yet to really experience the level of drilling like the Dakotas with the Bakken shale field or Appalachia with the Marcellus shale beds, Michigan has its Collingwood and Utica shale beds, which lie substantially deeper than the prolific Antrim shale that has been historically productive here.

And because those beds are so deep, that is some of the concern being raised over this form of drilling made possible by new technology. Because the process of horizontal drilling requires so much water, and because these areas are so deep in the ground, concern arises over what the mixture of water and chemicals might do to water aquifers in a region, subsidence issues above the area being drilled and how best to dispose of all the contaminated water or “flowback” that is produced in the process, which can be a significant amount of water at any one well.

The proposed DEQ regulations proposed in Michigan this week would require companies to test the water quality of a region before any drilling would begin. This would establish a baseline should problems develop later. In addition, companies would need to be transparent and provide residents with a list of chemicals they are using at any drilling site.

Based on reports I have read, the potential from this form of drilling is impressive, and could speed the process toward the United States eventually becoming energy independent. However, as with anything, there also are risks associated with the process and for that reason, we in Michigan need to proceed carefully and prudently before totally embracing it.

The proposed new DEQ regulations are a good start.

Energy independence is a worthwhile goal, so long as we don’t do anything to risk our state’s abundant natural resources and pristine beauty.

Maintaining that beauty still has to be our number one priority in Michigan. Everything else then falls into line after that.

Bill Speer can be reached via email at bspeer@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 354-3111 ext. 331. Follow Bill on Twitter @billspeer13. Read his blog, More BS?(Bill Speer) at www.thealpenanews.com.