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State Politics Fri May 24 2013

The Case for an Illinois Fracking Moratorium

What would happen if a tornado hit a million-gallon tank full of fracking wastewater in southern Illinois? I don't know for sure, but I suspect the result would be to spray the countryside with poisonous waste. If legislators don't know, they need to pass a fracking moratorium, as five Illinois counties have already called for, alongside any bill that would open up Illinois to fracking.

Amidst other hot issues such as pension reform, same-sex marriage, and concealed carry, the Illinois legislature is currently considering both allowing and regulating high-volume fracturing for natural gas, or "fracking," The controversial subject of films like the award-winning, Oscar-nominated documentary GasLand and the fictional Promised Land, fracking consists, essentially, of injecting a pressurized slurry of sand, water, and chemicals deep underground in order to bust up shale rock containing fossil fuel reserves and force those fuels (oil and gas) back up the well. Fracking has been around for decades, but not in the high-pressure, high-volume "horizontal" form in which drill bits, once deep below the surface, are turned sideways and can extend for up to a mile from the well in any direction.

Up to several millions of gallons of water are injected into each fracking well, along with chemicals that include salts, volatile and carcinogenic compounds such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene, volatile organic compounds, heavy metals such as lead, and radioactive metals such as strontium and barium. Between 10%-25% of the injected fluid returns as flowback wastewater, or 420,000 to 2,520,000 gallons per well. For comparison, a typical municipal water tower (think "Save Ferris") is about 1 to 1-1/2 million gallons.

The intuitive opposition to this practice is understandable: it disturbs and destroys long-existing geology in areas near where people live, farm, and grow our food and livestock, and where the principal source of drinking water is also underground. The volumes of water and chemicals used are as enormous as the potential profits to be made, while many (primarily rural) Americans, including non-leasing neighbors who don't stand to gain anything from the operations, bear the risk. Although no one I've spoken to is aware of any fracking yet ongoing in Illinois, it's possible that some already is, on private land, and reportedly many mineral leases have been arranged. As a result, two principal legislative efforts to address the controversial yet potentially lucrative practice have emerged: regulation and moratorium.

An alliance of industry and environmental groups is backing the principal Illinois regulatory bill, SB 1715, which has already cleared the Illinois House Executive Committee. A core of activists is opposing any fracking and calling, at a minimum, for extended moratorium, as in the bills HB 3086 (introduced by Rep. Deb Mell, with 20 co-sponsors but languishing in Rules Committee) and its companion SB 1418. The Sierra Club is backing both. On examination, Sierra Club's approach -- regulation and moratorium while a public task force more deeply examines the concerns -- makes more sense than simply passing the regulatory bill.

The rationale for the regulatory bill, for which environmental groups have come under fire for "selling out," comes down to "it's better than nothing." SB 1715 is significantly better than nothing, and, if true that nothing currently prohibits fracking or even regulates it other than antiquated 1940s oil and gas laws inapplicable to this technology, certainly Illinois needs new rules. Proponents tout the bill as the strongest in the nation. "Bunk," say folks like CREDO and the respected desmogblog.com, observing that many similar bills in other states claim the same, and that if Illinois passes such a bill, it will be used as both a template and a wedge to impose fracking on areas where the likelihood of massive drilling is much greater than here.

The green proponents' refrain, inevitably, is that fracking may be ongoing already, and that nothing is holding it back here except "regulatory uncertainty." That "uncertainty" may consist of Article XI, Section 2 of the Illinois Constitution that guarantees every Illinoisan a right to a clean and healthful environment, and the right to sue to enforce that right. Certainly many people would feel that that right had been violated if fracking was occurring 500 feet from their home, or 300 feet from their stream, as would be allowed under the pending "strongest in the nation" bill.

Ask an advocate of the bill if they'd be comfortable with fracking that close to their home or family water well, and the best you'll get is a mumbled "well, we know it's not perfect." This from mainly Chicago-area folks who don't have to face the threat.

The fact is, we don't know exactly what chemicals have been used or will be used in fracking, because those proprietary mixes have been hidden as "trade secrets." The secrecy, as deep as the wells, has limited many studies on effects of fracking, with much evidence being anecdotal. We don't know the effect of earthquakes. Few seem to know why such a toxic stew needs to be used in the first place. Or if it can be contained.

People understandably spook when drinking water is threatened. Some evidence suggests not only that methane from fracking can and does migrate into drinking wells, but that the government is making decisions politically, not scientifically.

What happens to sequestered chemicals in an earthquake - which are sometimes caused by fracking? What about the failure rate of fracking well casings, reportedly as high as 6%? What keeps the chemicals out of groundwater when that happens? And if the chemicals do escape, for any reason, how on earth -- or below earth, to be specific -- can they possibly be recaptured? What we do know is that this practice has already caused spills and blowouts that have contaminated drinking water.

"Best practices" are a good ideal in any legislation to protect the environment, but we've been assured over and over that that's what an industry uses -- until a disaster like BP/Deepwater Horizon reveals that those practices are often breached.

Natural gas is touted as a transitional energy source enroute to a renewable energy future, claimed to produce only half the carbon emissions of coal, but some studies, notably the work by researchers at Cornell in 2011-12, concludes that over its lifecycle, fracked natural gas is as greenhouse-gas dirty as coal because of emissions during production, transport, and transfer, at least for uses other than electricity generation. Unquestionably there are leaks throughout the process.

Another discounted aspect is that if exports of fracked but then liquified natural gas are allowed, export, not domestic use, will be the fate of much of the gas extracted, and the contribution to global GHG emissions will be an increase. That exportation also means that today's current cheap prices for natural gas won't hold.

Overall, it appears that in claims about economics, cumulative environmental costs have not been given sufficient study, especially the overall impact on water. Nor do we know the longterm effect on communities. A chief failing of SB 1715 is that counties lack control, leading to the perversity that an Illinois county can ban wind farms but not fracking operations. The landscape of America is littered with towns that experienced boom and bust based on resource extraction. Illinois doesn't need that.

Aside from the intuitive, direct threat of pollution and the more publicized possibility of causing geologic instability and earthquakes, there are other environmental concerns. Fracking in Illinois will increase pressure to mine sand from sensitive areas such as near Starved Rock State Park. It will unquestionably decrease wildlife habitat, such as for birds.

Let's return to the question of waste with which this post began. Where does it go? We know that many previous industrial booms have been accompanied by fly dumping, illegal pollution, and an "out of sight, out of mind" approach to disposal of toxics. Fracking in other states results in landscapes dotted with large, open pools of colorful, poisonous fluids, left to evaporate. Oil and gas open pools are big wildlife killers, far more than wind turbines.

Supposedly in the Illinois bill, closed tanks rather than open pits will be required. This is hard to envision given the enormous liquid volumes involved. But for argument's sake, let's say that every well results in a water-tower-sized tank of toxins. Will those tanks withstand natural phenomena we see annually in Illinois, such as minor earthquakes, floods, and killer tornadoes? Consider what happened to the hog waste in North Carolina when Floyd hit, or the spent nuclear fuel in Japan's tsunami. Will the Illinois frack-waste tanks be safe from truck collisions, terrorists, or the random vandalism of youths with guns who from time immemorial have used objects in rural areas as targets?

I support the imperfect regulatory bill at this point because a moratorium by itself is insufficient protection. Moratoriums expire, and the federal sequester has shown that we can't always count on common sense to intervene before self-imposed doomsday deadlines.

But with so many unanswered questions, rushing into any regulatory regime, especially one that's a product of "consensus" in which not all stakeholders were represented, makes far less sense than simultaneously imposing a moratorium. By whatever means possible at this stage in the legislative process -- whether by separate bill, amendment, or amendatory veto --a timeout should accompany SB 1715, allowing both the larger and the localized effects of fracking to be better studied, so that any regime we impose to regulate fracking can be not just "better than nothing," but the best possible.

 
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LisaO / May 24, 2013 11:16 AM

I don't understand how a moratorium (a ban, however temporary) is less protective than a seriously weak regulatory bill that the state doesn't have the resources to enforce in any case. In NY, the longer the moratoriums (moratoria?) continue, the more people know, the more opposition there is to the practice of fracking, and the less politically attractive it is to legislators.

Prentice / May 28, 2013 3:56 PM

I think the author is trying to say that a moratorium may just get us back where we started in 2 years--with no better regulations than we have now. With a moratorium, a task force will examine fracking in the two year "timeout" and then offer advice about what the state should do. But no one can necessarily guess what the political climate will be in two years or whether legislators will want to regulate the industry in two years. I believe he is saying that a regulatory bill AND a moratorium together provide the maximum amount of safety for Illinoisians as it both raises the legal "floor" on what sorts of practices frackers can use while the moratorium indeed provides more time to gather scientific evidence on the issue.

Jeff Smith / May 29, 2013 8:03 AM

Thanks, Prentice, exactly right. Belt AND suspenders. Also, this matters to a lot of folks outside Illinois.

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