A bill moving through the Illinois General Assembly would create new regulations for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the controversial oil and gas drilling technique that can pollute drinking water and is set to begin in the state next month.
A bill moving through the Illinois General Assembly would create new regulations for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the controversial oil and gas drilling technique that is set to begin in the state next month. Fracking has come under scrutiny after being linked to polluted water supplies in several states. State lawmakers are working to establish environmental safeguards before fracking operations get underway in downstate Illinois.
Fracking is the practice of injecting a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals known as fracking fluid into the ground to create cracks in deep shale rock layers. These cracks release natural gas buried thousands of feet underground. Fracking has reversed twenty years of decline in the natural gas industry, but has also garnered strong criticism from environmentalists and lawmakers. In his State of the Union address last January, President Barack Obama said, “We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years, and my administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy.”
The fracking process involves drilling vertically for 5,000 feet to 8,000 feet before drilling horizontally through the shale. Each fracking uses between two million and five million gallons of freshwater, and can produce one million gallons of heavily polluted water that returns to the surface. This “flowback” mixes with saline water from underground to create what the petroleum industry calls “produced water”, a solution containing high salt content, radioactive materials, and heavy metals such as arsenic. Processed water is stored on the surface until it can be injected into depleted wells, treated, or recycled.
Fracking fluid contains hundreds of chemicals including antibacterial agents and known carcinogens such as benzene. A 2011 report by the U.S. House of Representatives found that between 2005 and 2009 oil and gas companies used more than 780 million gallons of hydraulic fracturing products containing 750 chemicals and other components. At least 29 of these chemicals are known or possible human carcinogens regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act or listed as hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act.
The Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempts natural gas drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and other federal environmental regulations. In 2004, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under President George W. Bush determined that fracking “poses little or no threat” to underground water supplies. A strong pushback by fracking proponents against federal regulation leaves it to each state to deal with the environmental effects.
Late last year, the EPA released a
report stating that fracking likely caused underground water
contamination in Pavilion, Wyoming, the first time
a federal study linked the two. The oil and gas industry and some water
experts contend that fracking poses no threat to underground aquifers
The industry also initially refused to disclose the chemicals used in the fracking process, claiming proprietary rights. A Senate bill would require chemical disclosure in Illinois, as is the case in several other states. Ben Grumbles, president of the Clean Water America Alliance and former assistant administrator for water at the EPA, said the initial failure created distrust.
“If you’re trying to hide something, that generates suspicion and concern. And those people protecting public health and environment need to know about these chemicals,” he said. “There’s a difference between the community’s right to know and proprietary rights. Public debate is clearly winning on the side of right to know.”
Energy companies are leasing farmland in southern Illinois, with perhaps $100 million already spent to secure mineral rights in nineteen counties considered favorable for gas exploration. Much of the state is situated above the New Albany Shale, a large geologic formation that contains natural gas and oil shale deposits. A 2011 report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates recoverable natural gas reserves in the New Albany shale at about 11 trillion cubic feet, or slightly less than half of what the entire nation consumed in 2010.
While this amount represents only about one percent of the nation’s projected reserves, an oil and gas boom would reshape the local economy and create a host of environmental problems. Even if fracking truly poses little or no threat to drinking water supplies, the processed water presents a large waste problem. Many municipal water treatment facilities cannot process produced water, so oil and gas companies will have to recycle the water themselves or take it to an EPA facility. Perhaps most importantly is the sheer volume of water used. Each fracking uses millions of gallons of fresh water and a well can be fracked multiple times, adding up to hundreds of billions of gallons each year nationwide.
Fracking operations occur in solid rock between gas deposits and aquifers. Grumbles says there are virtually no instances where fracking fluid gets into aquifers or wells from the fracking process itself. The debate over contamination in Wyoming, raises a bigger dilemma: The environmental impact doesn’t go away when the operation ends.
Less than half of this polluted water returns to the surface during the fracking operation, and no one can say with any certainty what will happen to the rest. While much of the water is expected to remain underground, it could contaminate aquifers and wells over time. Landowners and the community could be responsible for dealing with the effects of a million gallons of produced water rising to the surface.
Grumbles adds, “You shouldn’t ignore the risk to groundwater and aquifers, but the biggest risk is surface water contamination and management of very large volumes or salty, mineral rich, produced water once it comes up to the surface.”
Brian Sauder, outreach and policy coordinator for Faith in Place, said an effective law would regulate three core areas: chemical disclosure, wastewater treatment and management, and well casing integrity. The oil and gas industry, however, has supported legislation that only requires chemical disclosure. An earlier bill, SB664, originally included language to require chemical disclosure and wastewater management, and to prohibit the use of benzene and other volatile organic compounds. After lengthy negotiations these provisions were eliminated from the legislation that passed the Senate before failing to clear the House last year. The bill was reintroduced as SB3280.
Several prices of proposed legislation aimed to prevent from happening in Illinois what has occurred in Wyoming and perhaps other states. Two House bills and one Senate bill stalled, and SB3280, introduced by State Sen. Michael Frerichs (D-Champaign), is currently under negotiation in the General Assembly. This bill requires companies to disclose the chemical formula of their fracking fluid to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the public, establish safeguards for storage and disposal of wastewater, and test the integrity of the cement and steel well casings meant to protect groundwater during fracking operations.
State Rep. Naomi Jakobsson (D-Urbana) is promoting HB4312 that would establish a twelve percent tax on oil and gas revenues, as well as a bill identical to the Senate legislation. She said, “Drilling will start in May, and we want to make sure we have regulations in place.”