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Thursday, June 27, 2013 04:25 pm

What to expect with fracking

State law opens up southern Illinois to hydraulic fracturing

Illinois will soon be open range for hydraulic fracturing, the controversial technique for freeing oil and natural gas trapped in underground shale rock. But even as the state prepares its rules governing the technique, some environmental activists are vowing a continued fight in cities and counties across southern Illinois.

On June 17, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law a lengthy bill to regulate hydraulic fracturing, commonly called “fracking.” While fracking was previously unregulated in Illinois, oil and gas companies didn’t want to do it because they lacked the legal certainty of comprehensive rules.

Fracking involves pumping several million gallons of water, toxic chemicals and sand into shale rock formations about a mile underground. The pressure from the fluid creates small “fractures” in the shale rock, while the sand holds open the cracks to allow freed oil and natural gas to be pumped out. While several high-profile environmental groups like the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club were part of the negotiating group that supported the fracking bill, many smaller environmental groups in southern Illinois intensely opposed the bill.

“It’s about jobs and it’s about ensuring that our natural resources are protected for future generations,” said Quinn in a public statement. “I applaud the many environmental advocates and representatives from government, labor and industry who worked with us to make Illinois a national model for transparency, environmental safety and economic development.”

The Illinois Coalition for a Moratorium on Fracking responded angrily, calling the law “premature, insufficient and unenforceable.”

“Any responsible person, after looking at the evidence for serious harm caused by fracking across the nation, would have wanted to investigate further to make sure that the regulations, written primarily by the industry… were sufficient to protect Illinois,” said Lora Chamberlain, spokesperson for the coalition. “But Gov. Quinn is acting like a desperate man and his actions will prove to be penny wise and dollar ridiculous.”

Another group, Southern Illinoisans against Fracturing our Environment (SAFE), posted a “manifesto” on its website, promising to fight for a fracking ban at the state level and oppose fracking in any municipality where it may be proposed. The group also alludes to potential acts of civil disobedience, saying, “If elected officials refuse to defend our land, water, air and health against those who would despoil them for their own profit, then we will do it ourselves, using peaceful, nonviolent methods.”

At least five southern Illinois counties voted during the fracking bill debate to support a moratorium on fracking. The counties - Johnson, Jackson, Union, Pope and Hardin – together cover much of the Shawnee National Forest.  While the new fracking law doesn’t allow counties to ban fracking within their borders, it does allow them – or anyone with “an interest that is or may be adversely affected” – to call for a public hearing before a fracking permit can be issued.

In the meantime, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources is gearing up to oversee fracking by drafting permitting rules and hiring as many as 50 new regulators. Chris McCloud, spokesman for DNR, says the agency’s new rules must be approved by the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, a legislative body, before taking effect. DNR also has 90 days to create a form that oil and gas companies will use to identify themselves as possibly using hydraulic fracturing, McCloud says.

In other states where fracking has already begun, there is still contention over whether fracking harms the environment. Activist groups point to reports of methane in drinking water and the poisonous wastewater produced by fracking, while industry representatives point to a lack of a conclusively proven link between fracking and groundwater contamination.

A recent study from the University of Pittsburgh said fracking in that state has had no measureable effect on groundwater supplies. One of the study’s authors, environmental engineering professor Radisav Vidic, cautioned that the study only dealt with available data, which he admits is limited. Vidic says fracking can be done safely, but there are also many ways it can go wrong, such as when a well casing cracks or is poorly constructed to begin with.

“There’s nothing inherently unsafe about this technology that it’s going to definitely screw up,” Vidic said. “It’s a matter of doing it right. … We should be more focused on what they do when the wastewater comes back out of the well highly polluted. That should be the focus of everybody’s attention.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

Fracking law: http://ilga.gov/legislation/publicacts/98/098-0022.htm
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