By Jamey Dunn
A coalition of Illinois groups opposed to horizontal hydraulic fracturing is pushing for a ban on the practice in the state.
Hydraulic fracturing, which is commonly referred to as fracking, is achieved by pumping water mixed with sand and chemicals through a well into rock that holds a carbon fuel, such as oil or natural gas. The water creates pressure, which fractures the rock or opens up pre-existing cracks. The sand holds the cracks open so the gas and/or oil can be extracted. It has been done since the 1930s. But recently, fracking has been coupled with horizontal drilling, which allows gas and oil companies to drill down into the Earth and then permeate rock along a horizontal line, which is sometimes miles long. The marrying of the two technologies has allowed for projects that are much larger in scale. (For more on fracking, see Illinois Issues May 2012.)
Lawmakers, regulators and many environmentalists agree that it is coming to Illinois. Oil and gas companies and have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars leasing mineral rights in southern Illinois. House Bill 2615 seeks to regulate the practice and has a broad group of supporters.
“There’s kind of a gold rush mentality surrounding all of this isn’t there? But what happened after the gold rush? Ghost towns,” said Rich Whitney, who is on the legal committee for Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment (SAFE). A group of anti-fracking activists that rallied at the Capitol today say they reject the prevailing belief that fracking in Illinois is inevitable, and they are calling for a two-year moratorium on the practice. “Fracking is not inevitable, and it is offensive to suggest that is inevitable without hearing from the people first and hearing what their concerns are. They’re very legitimate concerns,” said Whitney. Senate Bill 1418 and HB 3086 both call for a two-year ban on fracking and the creation of a task force to study the issue.
Whitley, who ran as the Green Party candidate for governor in 2006 and 2010, took Gov. Pat Quinn to task for highlighting fracking in his budget address. "Hydraulic fracturing, commonly called fracking, is coming to Illinois, with the strongest environmental regulations in the nation,” Quinn said. “This legislation has the potential to create thousands of jobs in downstate Illinois. It will also ensure that our natural resources are protected for future generations.” Quinn encouraged lawmakers to approve HB 2615 this year.
“Gov. Quinn is wrong when he said. ...that this bill will be the strictest regulations in the country. No. New York has a moratorium. That’s the strictest regulation in the country. And what’s good enough for New York, we think is good enough for Illinois. We think that they had the wisdom. We need the wisdom,” Whitley said.
Fracking opponents said that the process for appealing drilling permits in HB2615 would be overly burdensome on residents. They argue the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which has seen deep cuts in recent years, is not prepared to properly regulate fracking. “Nobody listened to the people of southern Illinois” before HB2615 was introduced said Annette McMichael, a SAFE spokesperson. “I assure you southern Illinois was not represented in the closed door sessions [to negotiate the bill]. We are going to continue to educate our legislators that southern Illinois is not a playground for the oil and gas industry.”
Several environmental groups support HB 2615. However, the say they would also be open to a moratorium. Jack Darin, director of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club, said most groups just want to make sure that if fracking comes to Illinois, there is a regulatory plan in place. “In the environmental community, we have a lot of concerns about what fracking is going to bring to Illinois, and when we look at some of the controversies that have happened in other parts of the country, there’s a real need for us to prepare for that,” Darin said.
However, Environment Illinois, which describes itself as a citizen-based environmental advocacy organization, has joined the call for a moratorium. Bruce Ratain, state policy associate for Environment Illinois, called fracking a “rolling environmental disaster” across the country. Ratain pointed to incidents that occurred in the last two months. A fracking well operator in Ohio was accused of illegally dumping thousands of gallons of chemical-laced wastewater and contaminating the Mahoning River. A broken well-head near the northern Colorado town of Windsor spilled an estimated 84,000 gallons of contaminated water. In a rural northeastern area of West Virginia, a worker was killed by an explosion on a drilling site.
Lawmakers in support of HB 2615 say that potential environmental dangers are part of the reason they believe the bill is needed. “It does concern me — there’s no doubt about it — but now with these rules and regulations in this legislation,I think it’s going to help things. ... Some rules and regulations are better than none,” said Rep. Brandon Phelps, a Harrisburg Democrat. He said he does not think groups like the Sierra Club would support the bill if they thought it would be bad for his region of the state. “I just can’t for the life of me not vote for this knowing that there are companies that want to come to Illinois and spend millions of dollars, and in my area especially, where unemployment is high because we’ve had some layoffs in coal mines and things shut down, like the prisons. This is going to be a huge economic boon in my area.”