(Photo by Randy von Liski via Creative Commons)

Illinois fracking rules could be strictest in the nation

Illinois legislators are expected to introduce a bill in coming days or weeks that would regulate hydraulic fracturing in the state.

Known as Democratic Rep. John Bradley’s bill, it is expected to be shaped by months of discussions that have taken place among environmental and industry leaders and legislators. Last year, legislation that started with support from both environmental and industry groups died after undergoing various permutations, including the addition of a two-year fracking moratorium.

“We’re  85 percent there in terms of where the environmental groups, industry and the Attorney General’s office want it to be,” said Tom Wolf, executive director of the Energy Council of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. “But the last 15 percent can sometimes be very difficult.”

On Feb. 6 Illinois state senator Mattie Hunter, from Chicago, introduced a bill like last year’s calling for a two-year moratorium to allow further study of the possible impacts of fracking the state’s New Albany Shale for natural gas. Experts said Hunter’s bill, an amendment to the Illinois Oil and Gas Act, is unlikely to pass given the failure of last year’s moratorium bill and the fact that industry and environmental leaders have been involved in crafting the Bradley bill.

Gas companies have leased about a half million acres and spent at least $100 million preparing for exploration in central and southern Illinois. But they have been slow to proceed while there is uncertainty over regulations, and it is still unknown whether the shale deposits will prove commercially viable.

“There’s a de facto moratorium in Illinois” until regulations are passed, Wolf said. “Companies aren’t willing to do test wells until they know what the regulatory landscape will look like. The Albany Shale has promise, but it’s not a guaranteed success.”

Some landowners and national advocacy groups say they will only be satisfied with an outright ban on fracking. Other environmental leaders say a regulatory bill is necessary.

“We support the moratorium – taking time to develop strong safeguards and analyze the new scientific information becoming available is definitely smart policy,” said Jack Darin, director of the Sierra Club’s Illinois chapter. “At the same time we realize not everyone feels that way, so in the event we’re not able to establish a moratorium we understand we’ve got to get the strongest protections in place that we can. It’s a two-pronged approach.”

A strong regulatory bill?

Though specifics remain to be seen, both Wolf and environmentalists involved in the discussions said that as the draft bill stands now, it will be one of the most stringent–or perhaps the most stringent–in the nation.

“When you have a lot of different interests and people at the table, it’s hard to reach complete consensus on everything,” said Nick Magrisso, policy advocate for the Midwest Program for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which has been involved in the regulatory discussions. “But we have reached consensus on a lot of important issues…We are very optimistic that this process has been as successful as we could have envisioned and the protections we’ve been able to advocate have defined a new floor for Illinois and other states to follow.”

The NRDC and Sierra Club are members of RE-AMP, which also publishes Midwest Energy News.

Disposal of contaminated water is one of the prime concerns in fracking, involving both the “flowback” water that–combined with grit and chemicals–is pumped in to fracture shale; and the “produced water” already in the earth that is contaminated by the process.

Those close to the negotiations expect the law to contain requirements that all contaminated water be stored in closed tanks or, in emergency situations, in lined pits.

“Water management is a huge question we want to see addressed,” said Magrisso.

The bill is expected to require companies to make public the chemicals they are using, but it likely will allow them to invoke trade secrets to avoid disclosure–a common practice nationwide.

The bill introduced last year, which contained language from the American Legislative Exchange Council, was controversial in part because it narrowly defined the parties with standing to sue to challenge trade secret privileges (an issue that’s also come up in Ohio). This year’s bill may allow a wider range of people to sue to force disclosure.

Wolf said disclosure is among the areas where companies are more willing to work with environmental groups than they were in the past.

“In the big picture, the industry has matured and changed over the years, it’s not the industry it was in 2005,” Wolf said. He said environmental groups have also become more knowledgeable about the technology and the improvements that have been made.

The bill is also expected to mandate baseline water testing, making it easier to determine if water is polluted by fracking. And the bill is expected to include a presumption of liability that fracking has caused any pollution that occurs.

“Without a presumption, a fracking company could suggest all sorts of explanations for contamination that turns up near their operations–they could say space aliens did it–and enforcement authorities would be stuck having to try to prove none of them were true,” Magrisso said.

The bill is also expected to include strong provisions for citizen enforcement, meaning citizens who suspect violations can sue to spur government agencies to step in.

Safe fracking?

Jessica Fujan, a Midwest organizer for the national group Food and Water Watch, said the group is opposed to fracking across the board. They have worked with Illinois Citizen Action to call for a statewide ban on fracking.

“We think regulating fracking is an impossibility and a joke,” Fujan said. “Our stance is that there is no such thing as safe fracking–pollution and damage to underground water sources cannot be undone. We are adamant that any moratorium present no pathway to fracking.”

She added that the group is “actively opposed” to the regulatory bill, though she believes its crafters include “people with good intentions.”

The group SAFE (Southern Illinois Against Fracturing our Environment) is made up of landowners and other residents in areas where companies have already leased large swaths of farmland and forest. SAFE executive director Annette McMichael, who has been approached by “landmen” seeking to lease her property, said the group supports the moratorium bill.

On March 1 all three groups will hold a town meeting in Carbondale. McMichael said  SAFE members have scheduled several lobbying days in early March, and they plan to hire professional lobbyists. She said she knows some environmental leaders say a moratorium bill “will never pass,” but she sees that as a “defeatist attitude.”

“With experienced people who know how to make this happen, I think we have–I don’t want to say a 50-50 chance, but–an opportunity well worth pursuing,” she said.

She added that SAFE will “never support anything that doesn’t have a moratorium.” And she is upset that SAFE was not involved in the discussions that are expected to lead to the regulatory bill.

“We have not been invited to participate at all,” she said. “We in southern Illinois feel like we should have a voice because we will be most affected.”

States fending for themselves

Without new industry-specific legislation, state agencies like the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Natural Resources don’t have the power to adequately monitor and regulate fracking, environmental leaders say. That’s because the agencies get much of their authority under federal laws which don’t apply to the oil and gas industry or hydraulic fracturing.

As the Environmental Working Group explained in a 2009 report, the oil and gas industries have exemptions from federal laws including the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The Energy Policy Act of 2005 specifically excluded hydraulic fracturing from provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act related to underground injection of fluids.

“No other industry would be able to come to Illinois and threaten our water and our communities like this,” said Darin. “We’ve got to have adequate national regulation, but we can’t really have that until Congress closes the loopholes created in 2005. I don’t think anyone expects the U.S. House to do that anytime soon, so states are on their own, facing these threats as best they can.”

5 thoughts on “Illinois fracking rules could be strictest in the nation

  1. As a member of SAFE – the only group that represents local people in this struggle against Fracking – it is underhanded on the part of those working on the Bradley bill to keep our viewpoint off the table in the discussions about Fracking regulations. It will be equally underhanded to prevent local county autorities over the issuance of drilling permits within their jurisdiction. without a moratorium local people are just sitting ducks. This is unjust in many ways because we are the only ones who will face the physical consequences of extravagant fresh water use in a time of drought – water that once poisoned by industry will never reenter the hydrological cycle. We will be the only ones who will have our wells and aquifers poisoned. It will be our air that will be poisoned by open pit waste water storage. It will be us who will suffer from skin lesions, nuclear radiation, and cancer. It will be our animals that will be stillborn. It will be our land that will suffer the earthquakes from storage of waste water in injection wells. We are not making this stuff up. These things have all happened to local people in states where Fracking is going on. In Illinois, we are getting the bums rush due to greed, lies, and empty promises on the part of the all powerful oil and gas industry and their collaborators. We pray that the people of Illinois hear our plea and tell their legislators to put a moratorium on Fracking until safeguards to protect human health and the environment can be identified and put in place. To learn more about SAFE’s position and the dangers of Fracking see our website at Dontfractureillinois.net

  2. I am a member of SAFE. We were not invited and did not participate in the negotiations for a regulatory bill. But I have been thoroughly briefed about what’s in it. It has some good principles in it.
    However, it falls way short of making fracking safe. Let me tell you some of the limitations;
    1, Water usage — It does nothing to limit the total amount of water used — not even in the peak of a drought. Fracking uses staggering amounts of water — up to a trillion gallons by the time they are done. Last month, one frack of one well in Michigan used 21 million gallons of water. They frack each well more than once. And there are going to be 5,000 to 10,000 wells in Southern Illinois if this gas plays out. Plus, the industry must use fresh drinking water. We don’t have nearly enough water in Southern Illinois to support the industry. Agriculture will collapse. See “Water for Oil is a Fool’s Trade” in the Southern Illinoisan.
    2. The water comes back up as toxic waste. Not just because the industry puts large quantities of dangerous chemical in it (which they do) but because the shale “naturally” contains heavy metals, volatile organic compounds, and large quantities of radioactive elements — barium, strontium, radium, and radon — which are water soluble and come back up. What are we going to do with all that toxic waste water. It cannot be cleaned. The new regulatory bill says: Yes, when stored on site this waste water must be kept in closed containers. But it absolutely says nothing about where these deadly poisons are going to go after fracking is finished. If the waste water is not regulated, it is practically certain that it will end up polluting our groundwater.
    3. Earthquakes. Not only does fracking cause earthquakes (actually it is the injection of the water deep into the ground which lubricates fault lines and causes earthquakes) as high as 5.9 to date. But more importantly Southern Illinois is “overdue” for a naturally occurring earthquake. What is going to happen to all these wells full of toxic chemicals if the earthquake hits. There is no regulation for this.
    4. Regulation is only a piece of paper. The IDNR has a track record of never enforcing permits and laws against the oil and gas industry. We can cite Court cases. The IDNR head also stated during negotiations for this bill that he lacks the manpower or the money to enforce it. Right now Illinois has some 15,000 uncapped wells that are leaking and have been abandonned by the oil companies. So the public has to pay to plug them. IDNR only has enough budget to plug some 500 per year. When they put it thousands of new wells in Illinois, who is going to inspect them all, and how are they going to pay for doing it. We all know: if noone is watching the industy will cut corners — as BP did in the Gulf of Mexico.
    5. It has been widely claimed that burning frack gas for electricity is cheaper than burning coal. The federal EPA
    recently trumpeted that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the entire United States have been trending down. This is true. But it is only half the story. You see, natural ggas is not CO2 but rather CH4. It is 25 times more ppowerful green house gas than CO2. So when CH4 leaks into the atmosphere — it is 25 times more potent than CO2 being emitting. The EPA report neglected to tally CH4 emissions from the fracking fields. But in February 2012, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) completed a detailed study of the amount of natural gas simply leaking from Colorado fracking fields. It found that 4% of all natural gas produced in the frack fields of Colorado were leaking directly into the atmosphere They were never burned to produce CO2. So the EPA did not count it. Now 4% leakage with 25 times more impact than CO2 amounts to a 100% greenhouse equivalent effect to emitting carbond dioxide. So you see, if the CH4 that is captured is burned and produces only 50% (or actually more like 55%) as much carbon dioxide as burning coal, that would be good except that the greenhouse impact is then doubled by the CH4 that leaks from the fracking fields. A recent scientific study out of Princeton found that 3.2% leakage is the break-even point. If leakage from the frack fields exceeds 3.2%, then frack gas is dirtier than coal (in terms of greenhouse effect). It is not what they call a bridge fuel. To make matters worse, the known evidence says that the 4% figure in Colorado was on the low side. The NOAA just completed a similar study (In December 2012) in Utah and found a 9% leakage rate from the frack fields. Regulations cannot prevent this leakage in the process of extracting the gas from the shale.
    6. The regulatory bill does nothing to protect worker safety. Reports from workers in Pa say they work in the vats where the frack fluids are kept, cleaning them out, without wearing protective clothing. These vats contained radioactive and toxic chemicals. Similarly, the industry used tons of silica. Exposure will cause silicosis, much like asbestos poisoning. The workers also say if they even ask Q’s about the chemicals they are expected to handle, they are fired.

    In sum, this regulatory bill has a few truly good points in it. But it falls way short of the mark in terms of protecting Southern Illinois.

    At SAFE, we also resent that you accept the industry’s word for it (along with one environmental group NRDC) to conclude that environmentalists have been involved in the negotiations and approve them. SAFE was not even invited to table. We at SAFE are the stake holders in Southern Illinois. Not some lobbyist in NRDC from northern illinois. It is our water that will be squandered and poisoned.
    Americans have an admirable can-do attitude. We plunge in first without doing the research. And then if there’s a problem we fix it on the fly. But there are some things, when they break, they cannot be fixed. If our water supply.is poisoned, it can’t be fixed. New scientific information is coming out rapidly in the past year. That is why SAFE supports a moratorium until all these danger points are thoroughly studied. We don’t want to be guinea pigs for the oil and gas industry.

  3. Fracking isn’t safe and there’s no way to keep it safe. I urge lawmakers to keep this out of Illinois. SAFE keep up the good work!!

  4. It’s obvious that the environmental extremists are all drinking the same bs cool-aid, whereby they manipulate computer data to reach their ignorant conclusions about horizontal drilling and fracking. I challenge them to find one shred of actual evidence that fracking contaminates water aquifers. They know nothing of the process for it is impossible for it to happen. They are too stupid and don’t want to learn the truth, for they believe in crap like “Gasland”, which is a total lie. Texas has been fracking wells for 60 years, 10’s of thousands of wells, and their is not one example of contamination of water zones due to fracking! SAFE is another liberal leftist conspiracy, against the oil companies, so that a carbon tax can be used to forward inefficient alternative energy! When are the geologists, the real climate experts going to speak up against this leftist media brainwashing bs!!

  5. I find it hard to believe that there is not a single incident of water polution in Texas related to fracking. But having said that Texas is Texas. The geology of each state is unique. Particularly in terms of what lies above and below the oil / gas bearing shale. The greenhouse potency of Methane needs to become a worldwide regulatory priority as does the acquired radioacitivity of the waste water. Waste water has been measured to have more than 300 times the free release allowable limit for long lived alpha emitters

    BTW – Decay of underground alpha emitting radioactive substances is the source of 100% of the world’s helium supply..