Crisis in Ravenna: The Tragedy of the Commons Comes to "Swansonville"

The good of all versus the enrichment of a few:  this is the essence of the troubling question facing the village and township of Ravenna, MI today. 

In his 1968 article, "The Tragedy of the Commons" in the journal Science , Garrett Hardin famously discussed the issue. Using the example of a plot of shared public grazing land, he stated the dilemma: that predictably each farmer will put as many head of cattle out to graze as he can, the objective being to maximize personal wealth without regard to the common good.  After all, it will cost him no more to graze 50 than to graze 25.  The inevitable result will be the overexploitation of the shared meadow, to the detriment of all the farmers.(1)

The water underneath the ground in Ravenna and throughout the state of Michigan is also a commons, like that shared grassy meadow.  As long as the people in rural areas used groundwater for drinking and the irrigation of their fields, there was no problem.  Each landowner took what was needed, and there was plenty left.  Even a business like Ravenna's Swanson Pickle Company, using large amounts for its brine vats, did not, as far as we have learned, unduly stress the supply.

All that has changed: in some parts of the state large corporations have sought to draw huge quantities of water from the ground in order to bottle it and ship it to all parts of the world.  They have encountered local opposition and some legal obstacles, given the threat they are seen to pose to the water supplies of the Great Lakes basin and the provisions of the interstate Great Lakes Compact.(2)

But a newer group of players has emerged in the form of oil and gas well drilling companies, which are exempt many of the limitations of other groundwater users.  Having long lobbied for legislation designed to make them a privileged class, the oil companies have laid plans to use massive amounts of groundwater for hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," a process designed to extract oil and gas trapped in layers of shale rock.  Unlike earlier processes designed to stimulate production from conventional wells, this new version of fracking may use up to tens of millions of gallons of water per well.  This being said, the two exploratory wells that have been permitted on Donald Swanson's property in the township are probably in themselves unlikely to dry up the village, which draws its drinking water from underground souces.  If one of these wells should yield a significant amount of oil or gas, however, all bets are off. In that case there will probably be many, many more wells. 

The agency that is supposed to protect the people's groundwater is the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. This is not at all reassuring, given the attitudes that its representatives have displayed when discussing fracking with members of the public.  At a May 1, 2013 meeting at Muskegon Community College, they brought along a small platoon of armed law enforcement officers.  They required all questions to be written on 3x5 index cards, then cherrypicked the ones they would deign to answer.  A second public meeting, on June 4 in Ravenna, dispensed with the armed officers but also utilized the selective 3x5 card process.  MDEQ officials have publicly admitted that while they will be using computer models and monitoring groundwater levels, they would not be likely to put a halt to drilling unless it was drying up some natural body of water. Individual landowners whose wells are affected will presumably have to sue the oil companies (good luck!) or eat crow. 

Neither is the MDEQ very reassuring on the pollution issues related to toxic fracking fluid and its ultimate disposition. (Thanks to the infamous "Halliburton Loophole," the companies do not even have to divulge all the ingredients) They talk of disposing it in deep injection wells where it will remain out of the hydrological cycle "during our lifetime," but don't say anything about the lifetimes of our children or grandchildren.  Water and other fluids can, it seems, migrate upward under the force of millions of tons of overlying rock and sediment and the pressure of natural gas.  Methane and hydrogen sulfide gas can also migrate upward into the remaining groundwater supply to produce something rather resembling lighter fluid. We are not supposed to worry about this, even though MDEQ officials concede that "there are no guarantees."(3) (4)

With a few notable exceptions, the citizens of Ravenna (sometimes nicknamed "Swansonville") do not seem unduly concerned about the possible threats to their health, businesses, or way of life.  Many perhaps believe that they will profit personally if oil and gas are found in the area. We suppose that the Swansons, who have not been forthcoming with any public statements, have already profited from whatever they were paid for their mineral rights, and may also be in a position to garner royalties from any oil or gas found beneath their property.  A few townspeople may be able to get jobs as truck drivers or pipe layers.  It seems that not many are aware of the possible negative aspects of the changes looming over their idyllic village and township.

(1)  Science #13, December 1968:  Vol. 162 no. 3859 pp. 1243-1248 DOI: 10,1126/science.162.3859.1243

(2)  See website

(3)  MDEQ official Rick Henderson, statement at Ravenna, MI public meeting, June 4, 2013.

(4)  MDEQ official Adam Wygant, statement at Muskegon Community College public meeting, May 1, 2013.

Copyright 2013 by R.W. Nye Group, LLC, all rights reserved.


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Filed Under: Fracking


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