Thursday, April 26, 2012

Senate approves fracking regulations

By Jamey Dunn

A measure to regulate a drilling process commonly referred to as “fracking” passed in the Senate with no opposition today.

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, is a process used to extract oil and gas by pumping water, chemicals and sand into the ground. The water fractures a source rock, allowing gas or oil to escape and be collected. Sand is used to hold the cracks in the rock open. Chemicals are added to the water for a variety of reasons, such as disinfection, lubrication and making the water thicker to keep the sand from sinking.

The primary controversy over fracking has been issues of water pollution. In Dimock, Pa, residents near fracking sites say their water has been contaminated and has made them sick. Preliminary tests by the U.S.  Environmental Protection Agency did find some chemicals in residents’ drinking water but did not find any at levels unsafe for human consumption and could not positively link any contaminants to fracking. Residents in other states near fracking sites have had similar complaints, but the EPA has yet to produce a conclusive link between fracking and toxic water pollution. Proponents of fracking claim that the water is pumped into the ground far below drinking water reservoirs and cannot come in contact with drinking water. Surface spills of water used in the process are also a concern.

Pennsylvania officials say that some methane released during the drilling of fracking wells did migrate to private water wells near Dimock. Methane is not toxic, but it does present a safety hazard because it is highly combustible. Multiple studies conducted by local governments have found elevated levels of air pollution near fracking wells.

 Franking has been practiced on oil wells in Illinois for decades, but a new interest has grown around the potential for extracting natural gas in southern Illinois. Such fracking projects would likely be on a much larger scale than anything Illinois has seen to date. Sen. John Jones, a sponsor of Senate Bill 3280 who has worked in the oil industry, said that he has participated in the fracking more than 500 oil wells over the last 30 years. Jones, a Mt. Vernon Republican, noted that there has never been a fracking accident in Illinois.

Out-of-state energy companies have begun leasing mineral rights in southeastern Illinois, sometimes paying double or triple the  historical prices for mineral rights in the area. So far, interest has been mainly focused in Wayne, Hamilton and Saline counties

The legislation would require drillers to met certain standards for protective casing built into fracking wells. They would also have to disclose the chemicals they use. Companies would be required to tell the state Department of Natural Resources how much water they use and how they plan to dispose of fracking waste water. The bill is backed by the industry, as well as environmental groups such as the Sierra Club. “This is the product of several months of negotiations,” said Champaign Democrat Sen. Michael Frerichs, a sponsor of SB 3280. Frerichs and Jones were the only two speakers during a floor debate of the bill today.

Terri Treacy, a conservation field representative for the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club, said that chemical disclosure would give residents living near fracking wells a chance at recourse if their water became contaminated. She said her group did not push for a ban on fracking because it did not seem like a political reality. “Bluntly, we feel like legislation to make it safer at this stage is more likely than getting a ban,” she said. The National Farmers Union in Canada has called for a moratorium on fracking in Canada. Several New York municipalities have banned the practice, and New York State is considering a moratorium.

“The environmental groups that we have dealt with are not antidevelopment groups,” said Brad Richards, executive vice president of the Illinois Oil & Gas Association. “They just want to make sure that the ground water is protected.” Richards said that fracking has been done responsibly in the state for decades, and the industry as a whole has embraced disclosing the chemicals used.

Richards said that fracking could bring economic development and jobs to parts of the state that face high unemployment rates and have been hard hit by the recent economic downturn. But he said drillers will have to work to be good neighbors, and local communities should consider the cons, such as additional wear and tear on roads and other infrastructure. “We are sometimes kind of given an either/or: ‘Do you want economic development? Do you want oil and gas development, or do you want to protect the environment?’” Richards said. “It’s not an either/or. We can have both, and I just absolutely reject the notion that you can’t.”

 But some in southern Illinois still hope to keep new fracking endeavors out of their area. Liz Patula, coordinator of Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment (SAFE), said that the potential risks of fracking are too big to consider for an uncertain economic payoff. She said she is worried about the long term impact if water or land becomes polluted during the process. “You’re talking about a few jobs, and the price for that is literally destroying the region and the land base.” Patula’s group is reaching out to farmers in southern Illinois and trying to rally a grassroots opposition to fracking.

 Drilling is expected to begin in the next few months. For a comprehensive look at hydraulic fracturing and what it could mean for Illinois, see the upcoming May edition of Illinois Issues.


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