Fracking - Restore the Public Trust

By Dr. John Richter

It is outrageous that a major foreign corporation can lease public lands at bargain rates, withdraw vast volumes of fresh water for free, repeatedly violate Michigan’s Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool, pollute these waters with toxic chemicals they don’t have to disclose and then permanently dispose of this waste deep underground. Recently over 20 million gallons of fresh ground water was used this way to frack just one natural gas well. There are plans to drill thousands more of these wells using even larger volumes of water. If so, the total volume of water to be withdrawn, polluted and permanently removed from the hydrologic cycle will deplete groundwater aquifers and forever threaten what’s left by underground toxic waste disposal.

Michigan was once a national leader in conservation. Management policies and environmental regulations enacted following the senseless carnage of the logging era fostered Michigan’s miraculous rebirth. While it’s still a work in progress, the rejuvenation of our natural resources is legendary. Our state parks, forests and bountiful natural resources, especially our abundant clean fresh water, are the envy of the world.

This legacy is now being threatened. I cannot recall a time when there have been so many attempts to dismantle environmental protective statutes. This seems incredulous at a time when the threats to our environment are unprecedented. Some of these threats are the result of the need to feed and fuel an ever expanding human population. But others are caused by the deliberate manipulation of laws and regulations to facilitate the reaping of private profits from public natural resource assets. The public’s interests in our state’s natural resources are being usurped by the oil, gas and timber industries in collaboration with our state government and those responsible for oversight. The DNR’s budget has been slashed, and it’s been been stripped of regulatory oversight. Senior managers have been forced into early retirement, leaving a void in institutional knowledge and experience. Citizen advisory boards have been abolished and the Natural Resource Commission politicized. Even time tested statutes like the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and Safe Drinking Water Act are being ignored, unenforced or diluted in the name of jobs, profit and economic growth. Wholesale leasing of public lands for oil and gas drilling (fracking), high volume water with- drawals forever contaminated with toxic chemicals, and enhanced logging operations constitute real present day threats to our environment and the Public Trust.

I fear modern society has entered a “new normal” that looks hauntingly similar to the early 20th century. Back then, abundant human and natural resources were over-exploited by a powerful elite. Immense fortunes were made at the expense of the public and nature. Virgin forests were clear cut, waters polluted, communities stricken by water-borne diseases, and lands despoiled. These calamities culminated in the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. That unregulated rush for wealth and disregard for the environment brought colossal prosperity to a few but ruin to most others. In Michigan vast primal forests were ravaged followed by massive forest fires. Our great rivers and lakes were choked and poisoned, and once prolific wildlife was driven into extinction. People realized too late that nature and a healthy environment were integral to their own quality of life and prosperity.

Fortunately, far-sighted leaders emerged. Having witnessed first-hand this wasteful decimation, they vowed to prevent this kind of reckless destruction and profiteering from ever happening again. They enacted visionary policies and laws that allowed our wounded lands and waters to heal. Large tracts of tax-reverted lands were placed in public ownership and designated a Public Trust. The lands, air, waters and natural resources of the state were thereafter managed for environmental quality and the public’s benefit. State government was charged with the duty to protect our publicly owned assets from pollution, impairment, waste, exploitation and destruction.

These concepts, collectively known as the “Public Trust Doctrine” were enshrined in Michigan’s Constitution, which reads, in part; “The conservation and development of the natural resources of the state are hereby declared of paramount concern in the interest of the health, safety and general welfare of the people. The legislature shall provide for the protection of the air, water and natural resources of the state from pollu- tion, impairment and destruction.” Other fundamental provisions in our state’s governing documents such as the Organic Act of 1913 and Michigan’s Environmental Protection Act (MEPA) of 1970 reinforce the Public Trust Doctrine and are codified in Michigan law. Repeatedly, through time, Michigan courts have reaffirmed that state lands and natural resources be held in the Public Trust and be managed for biodiversity, sustainability and public benefit. The results of these actions have been a resounding success.

Today Michigan is at a crossroads. Vast deposits of natural gas lie beneath our diverse state forests where timber has regrown to once again be valuable. Governor Snyder has declared that natural gas extraction and timber harvests will lead Michigan out of its economic slump. The Governor-appointed Natural Resource Commission has leased thousands of acres of public land to multinational corporations for the drilling of oil, gas and water wells. Fracking has been permitted on our public lands and even exempted from major environmental protection laws. Environmental impact studies are not required prior to the drilling and industrialization of our rural communities. Newly enacted management guidelines for our 4.6 million acres of state forests rejected the recommendations of a bipartisan core advisory board and instead call for increased timber harvests and protect nothing for Old Growth or Natural Areas. Incredibly, Michigan’s Senate voted to abolish biodiversity and sustainability as management guidelines for our publicly owned natural resources. This one act alone would open the floodgates for the commercialization of our state forests and parks and contravene the Public Trust Doctrine.

Michigan is poised to repeat some of the most egregious mistakes of our past. We need to remember history and heed the warnings of respected scientists and outcries of citizens who have borne first-hand the full impacts of fracking. Recent experiences and graphic examples from neighboring states clearly demonstrate the crushing impacts fracking has on fragile ecosystems, farm lands, water, forests and rural communities. The same natural gas for which some are willing to sacrifice our states natural beauty and pure waters for instant profit is being burned (flared) as waste in North Dakota. Is this gas that important or is this rush to drill just mere profiteering? Who stands to gain from this exploitation? How does this benefit the citizens of Michigan or the environment?

In this era of political gridlock and economic uncertainty average citizens are overwhelmed. We feel manipulated and deceived, powerless to have meaningful input to this rigged game. People have been systematically shut out of the decision making process by those who stand to gain. Property owners, conservationists and entire communities feel powerless to protect their vital interests from these industrial scale developments. Many activities related to fracking were carefully exempted from regulatory oversight and are actually subsidized with tax-payer’s money. Townships and communities were stripped of their normal zoning authority. Many homes and personal properties with or near gas wells cannot get insurance or mortgages and are deemed worthless. As witnessed a century ago, we need leaders to emerge who strive to a higher calling other than selfish wealth and power. Providing for the future quality of life for our children and grandkids is one of them. Protecting the sanctity of our states natural resources is another.

In Michigan the road to prosperity will not be found by paving the roads for fracking. Degrading our public lands and permanently polluting our pristine waters does not lead to economic prosperity or future sustainable growth. Our challenge in this modern era is to responsibly steward our abundant but finite natural resources for the public good and the environment using biodiversity and sustainability as our guiding axioms. Use but don’t abuse. Everyone shares the common needs of clean air, pure water, wholesome food and open space to freely pursue our interests. Reaffirm the Public Trust Doctrine and respect the wisdom of nature. We cannot disassociate ourselves or our wellbeing from the quality of the environment. Mankind must balance our activities and consumption with the needs of nature much like a trust fund spends the interest on its investments but not the principal. Let future generations be able to enjoy the fruits of a healthy environment and gratefully applaud the prudent decisions we make today.

Editor’s Note:
For more than 20 years the Friends of the Jordan River Watershed, Inc. has defended the Jordan River and its watershed against exploitation and pollution, whether from vested interests, or sadly, sometimes from our own government, the very people we would expect to protect it for us. We must remain ever vigilant. Find out more about the Friends of the Jordan River Watershed at our main web site, or join us on the third Thursday of the month at 6:30 p.m. at the Jordan River Watershed Center, 101 Union St. in East Jordan.

In Michigan the road to prosperity will not be found by paving the roads for fracking.

December 2013