Mark Denzler is with the Illinois Manufacturer’s Association, and he speaks for a coalition of industries and interests that want to get hydraulic fracturing started in Illinois as soon as possible.
We asked him a direct question.
“Can you tell me that you believe that horizontal fracturing is not harmful to the environment?”
We got a direct answer.
“Yes. A hundred percent. You’re always going to have issues, no matter what industry you’re in…accidents do occur. No doubt about it. But when you look back at folks who have studied this…Lisa Jackson who was the EPA administrator for President Obama said this can be done safely. Dick Durbin was in his debate last night on WTTW and they were asked about fracturing. He said he’s talked to the last two secretaries of energy…and they said it can be done safely.”
Fracking’s been going on for years, and is pretty commonplace (and often controversial) in a couple of dozen states, so what’s the status of fracking in Illinois?
A law authorizing fracking in Illinois passed a long time ago.
“Today’s an anniversary, not one we celebrate, but it’s been 500 days since the law was signed, and we’ve yet to see the final set of rules,” Denzler tells us. But passing the law was only part of a complex process.
“What happens is the Legislature says, OK, take that law and we’re gonna give it to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources,” explains Julie Wernau, who’s been covering the process for the Tribune. “And they’re gonna turn it into rules and regulations so that that they can actually start issuing permits for fracking. But that process has been lengthy. They had to hold hearings, they had to create a draft of the rules and then people responded to the rules. They commented, they got thousands and thousands of comments, more than they ever have on any rules they’ve ever created. So then they had to create a second draft and come back and say, here’s what we think the rules should be after listening to everybody, and then the Joint Committee is supposed to approve it or ask for changes or just reject them outright, and we’re waiting for this committee to decide.”
They have until november 15 to decide. And if they don’t reach a decision, the whole process starts over again.
What’s different about this process is that it involves not only drilling vertically, but also horizontally.
“Thousands of feet below the surface there are these oil deposits,” Wernau explains. “What they used to do was just go down vertically and get the oil out. Well now they say, how about we go down vertically and look at that whole layer, then go horizontal and frack the whole way? That’s why it’s a lot more oil.”
It’s also a lot more controversial. Opponents of the process appeared on our October 2 show, and you can watch it here.
Among the criticisms is the assertion that horizontal fracking, which involves the injection of millions of gallons of water deep into the ground along with various chemicals, sand and gravel, pollutes our drinking water. In the documentary Gasland, a man demonstrates his ability to light the water from his kitchen faucet on fire, and he blames recently-introduced fracking for the problem.
“Water lighting on fire was a famous scene in (Gasland),” Denzler explains, “And the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission…looked at it and found that it was geothermic methane. It had been the breakdown of natural materials. And people in that area had been lighting their water on fire for a hundred years. I would note there are three towns in the United States called Burning Springs because their waters lit on fire, not because of hydraulic fracturing.”
And Wernau adds that water contamination is usually not caused directly by the drilling.
“There’s some misinformation out there. People think that a lot of water contamination happens from the fracking process. Actually it has a lot more to do with what happens with the fluid that comes back up. If it’s sitting for instance in open pits and there’s a big rainstorm, that’s how groundwater can get contaminated. So a huge part of the law that was negotiated was – we can’t be storing this stuff in open pits. We have to have it contained. Illinois was able to learn a lot from the mistakes of other states that have done this.”
Storage of the fluids that return to the surface has indeed been a major issue in the rule- making process. The drilling interests have agreed to store these polluted liquids in tanks or containers, but the opponents are still claiming that the containment regulations aren’t stringent enough.
Nevertheless, it’s undeniable that fracking has changed the American economy. Gas prices have come down somewhat, and natural gas, which is often a by-product of oil fracking, has become abundant, lowering heating bills and transforming some industrial sectors. (However, as we discuss on this show, oil drillers are not always required to capture the natural gas, and in many cases this valuable resource is simply burned into the air, wasting this precious resource simply because it’s too expensive for the drillers to catch and transport.)
In the end, the set of rules hammered out between the industry reps and the environmental community does address many of the issues that have been raised in states that got into the game quickly. In this case, Illinois may have devised stronger rules simply because it came later to the process. But Denzler, who calls the regulations the most stringent in the nation, says landowners and lease-holders in Southern Illinois have waited too long, and that it’s time for fracking to get going in Illinois.
“If you look back in the past five years under the President’s administration, all the job growth, almost all of it – almost 100%, comes from the energy sector. The increased jobs, the increased revenue. So what it’s done for this country over the past five, ten years has been significant.”