New reports explore range of issues related to high-volume hydraulic fracturing

Researchers at the University of Michigan explored multiple aspects of hydraulic fracturing.

Researchers at the University of Michigan recently published seven technical reports detailing the results of a broad study that examined challenges related to hydraulic fracturing operations in the state.

The underlying research was conducted by faculty-led teams of students from multiple academic disciplines. Input was provided during the project by state officials, industry stakeholders, environmental organizations and other academics. Subsequently, the reports' authors reviewed more than 100 public comments.

Each of the reports addressed a different aspect of hydraulic fracturing, including:

  • Technology
  • Geology and hydrogeology
  • Environment and ecology
  • Public health
  • Policy law
  • Economics
  • Public perceptions.

"Nothing like this has been done before in Michigan," Project Director John Callewaert, who oversees integrated assessments for the university's Graham Sustainability Institute, said in a press release. "Having this comprehensive, state-specific set of reports will be an invaluable resource that will help guide future decision-making on this issue—and hopefully will help Michigan avoid some of the pitfalls encountered in other states."

Callewaert added that it was an appropriate time to conduct the research, as there is "a lot of interest in high-volume hydraulic fracturing, but there really isn't much activity at the moment in Michigan." This gave researchers an opportunity to explore the issue in depth without ruffling feathers.

Despite relatively low levels of current activity, hydraulic fracturing has a long history in Michigan that goes back to the late 1940s. Since then, it is estimated that at least 12,000 oil and gas wells have been fracked in the state, although most of these have been relatively shallow, vertical wells. More recently, a small but growing number of deeper wells with horizontal segments have been drilled in Michigan. In contrast to previous wells, which used about 50,000 gallons of water each, these new wells can use millions of gallons. This makes it more important for well operators to use best practices and cutting-edge equipment to minimize risks.

Effective management of flowback cited as top concern

Brian Ellis, an assistant professor in UM's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, was the primary author of the report on geology and hydrogeology. His team found that although issues related to groundwater often receive more attention, the greatest risk to water quality stems from mishandling of frac flowback.

"However, since in Michigan all flowback is disposed of by deep-well injection and it is not allowed to sit in open pits, the risk of this type of contamination will be lower than in other states without such disposal opportunities and regulations," Ellis wrote.

Well operators looking for a solution that can effectively manage flowback should consider the hydraulic jet pump. This product can effectively handle high volume flowbacks and has excellent solids handling capabilities.

The unit can be used in vertical, horizontal or deviated wells and can even be successfully deployed at sites where problems with the completion of well casing would limit the effectiveness of other solutions. Furthermore, with no downhole moving parts, the jet pump has minimal maintenance needs.