What the frack?

Controversial energy extraction could pose new threats if oil prices rise

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By Mark Guarino

Five years ago, Illinois passed new rules to regulate hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a controversial energy drilling process that uses high volumes of chemicals and water to extract oil and gas from shale formations trapped deep below the earth surface.

At the time, Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, cheered its passage, saying that it would create an economic windfall for the state. “This legislation will unlock the potential for thousands of jobs in southern Illinois, while ensuring that our state has the nation's strongest environmental protections in place for this industry,” he said in 2013.

The Illinois legislation is considered one of the strictest in the nation. Among its requirements are that drilling companies disclose chemicals they use, that they conduct testing before and after the fracking, and that they are liable for any water pollution that results from their activities.

Illinois is currently the 34th state where fracking is permitted in some form; only three states ban it outright. Yet it took four years after Quinn signed the bill for the first company to obtain a permit to start drilling. Last September, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources granted permission for Wichita, Kan.-based Woolsey Companies to drill near the southeast Illinois community of Enfield. Two months later, Woolsey announced it was canceling its plans and pulling out of Illinois because the permit process “was burdensome, time consuming and costly due to the current rules and regulations” of the state, according to a statement.

For environmental activists, the news was a victory, but an ominous one. Jessica Fujan, the Midwest director of Food Water Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group, attributes the Woolsey exit more to distressed oil prices than cumbersome paperwork.

Indeed, 2013 represented a peak in crude oil prices at $97.98 a barrel; by 2016, prices had fallen to $43.29 a barrel, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The French-based International Energy Agency, which advises industrialized nations on energy policies, forecast last month that global demand for oil will increase 1.1 percent by 2023. To meet the growing demand, the agency says that U.S. shale oil output will surge over the next five years.

For Fujan, that means Illinois is not safe from fracking.

“We are still waiting to see how the industry will bounce back now that gas prices are improving,” she said. There is no current permit application underway for high-volume horizontal well drilling, but that doesn’t mean Fujan and other activists on the ground are taking pause. “We want to protect landowners so when fracking is a possibility again we don’t have to go back to the drawing board and fight projects that are underway or in development,” she said.

Illinois holds particular interest for the oil and gas industry because of the Illinois Basin, a depression that covers roughly 60,000 miles, encompassing the majority of Illinois and on into southwest Indiana and northwest Kentucky. During the oil boom of middle part of last century, the Illinois Basin represented the third-largest reserve of its kind in the United States, responsible for 4 billion barrels of oil and 4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. New Albany Shale, a self-contained region within the Illinois Basin, consists of hydrocarbon source rock, and the Illinois portion is thicker and consists of organic-rich shale.

Critics link fracking to potential water contamination, increased risk of earthquakes, and health issues such as infant mortality due to toxic chemical leaks into the water or air. Wells can be fracked at least four separate times, which creates hazards for people living within the vicinity such as noise and traffic. The Independent Petroleum Association of America, an industry advocacy group, says that the benefits of fracking are far broader: it strengthens national security, creates millions of jobs, reduces energy prices, and ensures the United States remains a global energy superpower.

In Illinois, the most vocal coalition to educate farm communities on the issue is Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing our Environment, or SAFE, which started a year before the fracking regulations became law. Tabitha Tripp, a co-founder, said that besides monitoring permit applications with IDNR and working on legislation, SAFE members maintain a public-relations battle in small rural communities, some of which have limited local media. Tripp said they’ve had the greatest success knocking on doors. There is tension, she said, often from farmers who have become conditioned to oil drilling in their backyards, so they don’t necessarily see how fracking could be much different.

“I cannot blame any farmer trying to get more yield per acre off of their property,” Tripp said. “In their mind, oil drilling has been happening in Illinois over 100 years. So, it’s been difficult to re-educate people that are used to oil drilling and what they may perceive as not dangerous.”

One of the greatest concerns is the effect fracking will have on the state’s sensitive water supply. Each frack requires three to eight million gallons of freshwater, said Tripp. Besides that, she cited a 2016 multiyear study by the Environmental Protection Agency that found that fracking can impact drinking water resources under some circumstances.

A lawsuit filed on behalf of SAFE in Madison County against the IDNR says that fracking violates property rights because, by transforming traditional oil wells into horizontal fracking wells, it allows drilling companies to inject chemicals under neighboring land without giving notice or asking consent. “To anyone who understands anything about property rights, it should raise an eyebrow,” said Vito Mastrangelo, an attorney in Mount Vernon who filed the lawsuit.

Three bills designed to mitigate fracking are currently working their way through Springfield. One, by state Sen. David Koehler, of Peoria, will force drilling companies to publicly disclose all fracking chemicals and drilling routes. Another, by state Rep. Scott Drury, of Highwood, would implement an outright ban.

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“Intensifying our activities on extraction leads us down a dangerous path."

State Rep. Will Guzzardi

Drury was one of just nine House members who proposed a moratorium in 2013, and he said the issue needs to be revisited now that oil prices are starting to climb. He said the reason is environmental. “Once you ruin the earth, you can’t fix that,” Drury said. “When it comes down to history, I want to be on the right side of it to prevent the ruination of our state.”

The third proposal is a bill by state Rep. Will Guzzardi, of Chicago, that would  prevent landowners from being forced to accept fracking on their property. Guzzardi said the current law unnerves some landowners because, despite owning the mineral rights to their property, they could be forced to accept fracking on their land because, under law, it requires the consent of the majority of landowners. Guzzardi’s bill would amend the regulation so it required all landowners to approve.

The current law “gives tremendous power to corporations to trample over the private rights of individuals and I wanted to address that. It’s not fair,” Guzzardi said. “What else would owning mineral rights mean? It seems like it’s a meaningless concept if you can’t enforce those rights.”

Guzzardi said he supports a moratorium or ban, but he is unsure if either has the necessary support to pass. He is convinced, however, that fracking represents a “false promise” to fix the state’s fiscal crisis compared to renewable energy.

“Intensifying our activities on extraction leads us down a dangerous path and takes us away from the dramatic changes we have to make as a society to avoid the catastrophes of climate change,” he said. “In the long term, an economy based on the extraction of fossil fuels is doomed. As a planet we know we have to move away from these economies.”

Ted Cox