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Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014 12:01 am

How safe is hydraulic fracturing?

During the legislative battle to pass the Illinois hydraulic fracturing bill, safety was the major source of conflict. Over the past year, Illinois Times and major news outlets have reported the divisive testimony in the public hearings for fracking regulations.

Here’s some background to better understand why fracking safety has stirred up intense controversy in Illinois, and what to expect in the immediate future.

As you’ve heard, hydraulic fracturing has stimulated an oil and gas boom in those states with suitable geological formations. Income is flowing to company owners, corporate shareholders, employees, mineral rights owners, local retail economies, government treasuries – fracking benefits diverse groupings of individuals. Also, when marketed, these natural resources reduce the international prices for oil and gas – a gift to the growing Asian economies which thrive on cheap energy.

As fracking has expanded, the news media, homeowners and citizen groups have reported more damages and pollution. Many municipalities, townships and counties are limiting fracking by applying land use and public health and safety ordinances in their jurisdictions. In response, the petroleum industry asserts that the technology is safe, and points to six decades of development.

In response to increasing citizen opposition, organizations aligned with petroleum interests have created sophisticated public information campaigns. Disney’s Mickey Mouse starred in a controversial educational program produced for Ohio schools. Petroleum companies, state regulatory associations and many public officials promote FracFocus, a voluntary reporting program. Energy in Depth, which represents the Independent Petroleum Association of America, is a leading advocate: “Fracking is Safe, Petroleum Industry Says,” Los Angeles Daily News, 6/19/12. Here’s an excerpt:

“Countless scientists and dozens of state regulators – from Alaska to Alabama to Pennsylvania, and everywhere in between – as well as the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – have all stated on numerous occasions that there is no evidence linking hydraulic fracturing to water contamination. As EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said last month, ‘In no case have we made a definitive determination that the fracking process has caused chemicals to enter groundwater.’”

When published, this statement gave an approximate summary of scientifically based research. But it contradicted the accumulating news reports about families whose water, health and property were being damaged by fracking – plus polluted streams and noxious fumes.

Unless a water pollution or damage claim is documented by before-and-after evidence, regulators and judges will usually deny a hearing. But many regulatory processes do not provide the required adjudicable evidence. Why not? In most producing states, lobbyists and others have neutralized the regulatory processes. Injection chemicals are often ruled trade secrets. At the national level, bipartisan political alignments have allowed petroleum and pipeline companies to elude some federal regulations. In place of enforceable regulations, advocates promote voluntary programs, such as FracFocus.

Interest groups have massaged the regulatory processes to limit information about the damages and pollution of fracking. In most states, adjudicable evidence about safety breaches is not available. This evidence vacuum does not support assertions the technology is safe.

Fracking supporters will criticize the generalizations and give persuasive arguments that existing safety regulations are sufficient. In response to this advocacy, a person can ask some common-sense questions about current safety practices. How are wells inspected and monitored for leaks? Is baseline before-and-after water monitoring operational? How are water and air pollution being tested? How is wastewater disposal monitored? How are injection wells for chemical wastes regulated? How is cleanup of fracking sites, leaking wells and toxic spills enforced? Who pays?

These questions about fracking’s safety are relevant for Illinois citizens. Representatives of major stakeholders negotiated the regulation legislation, SB-1715, which Governor Quinn signed June 17, 2013. Public Act 098-0022 includes safeguards more stringent than any other state.

During the ongoing legislative struggle, petroleum companies have leased mineral rights for hundreds of thousands of acres in Illinois. As soon as IDNR publishes the final regulations, companies will file applications for permits to construct wells. It’s expected that citizens will use their rights to call for public hearings to review most permits. After IDNR approves a permit, the company can begin constructing the fracking wells.

It takes political muscle to enforce regulations that entail such large financial stakes and risks. How will public officials and judges interpret, apply and enforce the regulations? Corporate lawyers will exploit every potential loophole. Those decisions will determine how much damage, contamination and pollution are created by a fracking company – and which families, communities, agricultural lands, natural areas and water resources will bear the costs. The November elections are setting the stage for the next rounds of these ongoing political conflicts. The regulatory history of the Illinois coal industry may offer insights about what to expect.
Phillip Gregg is a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Springfield. He supports better conservation of the natural-resource endowment that we share by the good fortune of our birth in these United States.

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