Hydraulic fracturing. It’s directly or at least indirectly responsible for moderately lower prices at the pump, lower-than-normal heating bills and hundreds of other benefits where cheaper oil or natural gas affect our lives.
But cheaper comes at a price.
Fracking has been raging away for years in places like North Dakota, Wyoming and Pennsylvania, and now it’s coming to Illinois. On this week’s show we talk about what the future of Illinois fracking looks like – from the perspective of two people who oppose the practice. (We’ll hear from proponents on our October 30 show).
Before the first high-capacity wells are drilled, the State has to pass and put into effect a series of rules that define how the legislation will be enforced. And that, as with all things fracking, has been controversial.
Ann Alexander, with the Natural Resources Defense Council, was a negotiator who attempted to argue for the most stringent regulations possible.
“Illinois was basically an oil and gas free-for-all,” Alexander tells us. “We were operating under a pre-World-War II statute about oil and gas development. Very limited regulation, and it was not remotely equipped to deal with this much more modern, expansive technology of hydraulic fracturing.”
The loose coalition of fracking critics succeeded in getting the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to write regulations requiring storage tanks for waste water, public hearing processes and clear access to information for emergency first-responders. But neither Alexander or Dr. Lora Chamberlain with Frack-Free Illinois (and our other guest) think the process resulted in rules as strong as they’d like.
“We call fracking industrialized, extreme extraction. People in Illinois are familiar with little mom-and-pop pumpers dotting the countryside – that’s not what fracking is. Fracking is deeper, farther, bigger,” says Chamberlain.
“We’re talking between 2,000 and 6,000 feet, they will drill down. Then they can horizontally drill – they turn their drill bit – and they horizontally drill a mile, we know of ten-mile horizontal fracks in the Bakkan (in North Dakota).”
And this activity, our guests assert, must be subject to strict oversight and scrutiny.
“People are being subjected to proximity to what is a hazardous industrial operation,” says Alexander. “But you have to look at the particular hazards here…When we talk about high-volume hydraulic fracturing it’s particularly problematic given the volume of inputs and outputs. First of all, you’re putting really large volumes of toxic chemicals into the ground…Now the water issue has received a lot of attention as it should, but I think we also need to be mindful of the fact that there are significant impacts on air quality. You can have ponds that are emitting volatile organic compounds which include carcinogenic ones. You have the various equipment. And just to give you a sense of what’s going on, in rural Wyoming where there really is essentially no industrial activity except fracking, they have ozone “bad days” that are worse than what happens in downtown L.A. …So this is something to be taken seriously. We’re messing with both our air and our water, and with chemicals that may or may not be getting into our water supply.”
In many ways, our guests assert, it’s the workers who face the most immediate health threats.
“Benzine, Toluene, Ethylene, Xylene, these are carcinogenic volatile organic compounds. Hydrogen Sulphide in a large enough amount can sicken people immediately, and the workers are really getting hit. It is seven to eight times more dangerous on the frack field than any other job in America right now.”
A major issue for these activists is what happens to the millions and millions of gallons of water that become severely polluted during the fracking process. The water is injected into the well under extreme pressure, but when it returns to the surface it becomes a complicated disposal problem.
“You can kind of think of the shale layer as the carbon filter of our planet,” Chamberlain explains. “So all the toxic heavy metals and radioactive particles have landed in the shale layer. And up they’re coming with this waste stream. There’s also plowback water that flashes back. If you put in four million gallons under high pressure, some of it flashes back. That’s highly toxic, but what gets really bad is that the rest of the water gets pumped out as they produce the oil or natural gas. It comes up with the oil and they have to separate it out. And it’s really toxic and possibly radioactive.”
Often, this toxic water is simply re-injected deep into the ground in its polluted state without any attempt to process or filter it. So that water is removed permanently from the natural water cycle.
“And you’re doing that in areas of the state that may be more prone to earthquakes,” Chamberlain says, adding that this has already been an issue near frack fields. Oklahoma, she says, is now having more small earthquakes than California.
Then there’s the issue of flared gas.
This NASA photograph shows a night-time oddity. One of the most rural parts of America, a section of remote North Dakota, is lit as brightly as Chicago or Manhattan. That’s because the fracking wells, built solely for the purpose of extracting oil, also produce billions of cubic feet of natural gas. But the drillers aren’t interested in it, ironically because it’s so abundant. It doesn’t fetch enough in the marketplace to justify building the infrastructure to capture and move it. So enough gas to heat a couple of large American cities is simply burned into the air every day. It’s not only an unjustifiable waste of a precious resource, but it also adds to atmospheric greenhouse gas, thereby contributing to climate change.
“One of the things we fought for very hard in the statute, and we still don’t have anything close to a perfect solution, is a requirement that they capture their gas,” Alexander tells us. “We think it’s important that the first-line presumption be that, if you generate gas, you capture it. You use it. We don’t waste that.”
There’s no sure way to know how much gas will be found in Illinois until the wells come on line. But, says Chamberlain, as things currently stand, there’s an exemption in the bill that says if it’s not economically feasible that they can go ahead and burn it.
The new rules will go into effect on November 15 unless something unforeseen happens, and permit applications will be processed shortly thereafter. Proponents say fracking will bring billions of dollars in economic activity to Illinois, and they confidently predict it will create 47,000 jobs. The opponents vigorously dispute both claims.
Negotiations will continue on the regulations. NRDC, Frack-Free Illinois and others say the rules aren’t strong enough, and they’ll keep up the pressure to strengthen them. Proponents say the rules as they currently stand are so onerous that drilling companies are already planning to skip Illinois completely because the rules have made drilling to expensive.
Ann Alexander gets the last word. “We were determined to get the best protections that we could in the context of that process, but they’re far from perfect. This is not a bill that is going to make fracking safe. It’s a bill that’s going to decrease around the edges some of the biggest risks associated with fracking.”