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Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015 12:01 am

Small-scale fracking

Low-volume fracking occurs in Illinois with less oversight

The well, originally drilled by SM Energy, is now operated by Strata-X.
Photo by Alan Kozeluh.

 

Illinois has yet to issue permits for high-volume hydraulic fracturing, but at least one well has been “fracked” since a new law began regulating the practice. However, one industry expert says low oil prices may slow new high-volume fracking activity.

According to documents obtained by Illinois Times, an oil well in Wayne County was fracked in July 2013, about a month after the legislature passed a law regulating the controversial process. Although no permit was issued to frack the well, it appears to have been done legally.

The well was dug and fracked by Denver-based SM Energy – not to be confused with Strata-X Energy, also of Denver, the only company to have registered with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) for a high-volume hydraulic fracturing permit. An email sent to SM Energy was not returned by publication.

SM Energy was able to drill and fracture the well, Blessings 1-4H, without one of the new fracking permits because the 2013 law largely doesn’t apply to low-volume hydraulic fracturing operations. The well was fracked with 162,900 gallons of water, sand and chemicals in several phases, but the law only treats fracking as “high volume” if it uses more than 80,000 gallons of fluid per phase, or more than 300,000 gallons overall.

 Two of the chemicals in the mixture, xylene and ethylbenzene, are volatile organic chemicals regulated under the Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Regulatory Act for high-volume fracking, but not for low-volume fracking like that in Wayne County. 

“You have to understand, we’re trying to fracture rock that has those chemicals in it; those are in the oil-bearing formation to begin with,” said Brad Richards, executive vice president of the Illinois Oil and Gas Association.  “These chemicals are oftentimes used to protect the integrity of the well-bore.”    

Fracturing a well, is a type of well “stimulation,” as Richards called it. Fracking is associated with what is called unconventional horizontal drilling, but any kind of well can be fractured. In January 2014, a more conventional vertical well near Fairfield, IL had a blowout during a fracturing operation.

Richards said that some conventional wells need stimulating, but all unconventional wells do. Wells are generally fractured once and then left to pump oil. Sometimes, a company will decide to stimulate a well a second time.

Richards said that the use of hydraulic fracturing to stimulate wells into producing oil has been used in Illinois since the 1950s.

“We were not interested – including the environmental coalition – in trying to regulate activities that have been going on without incident for 70 years,” Richards said. “The objective was to regulate high-volume hydraulic fracturing.”

Illinois Environmental Council (IEC) Executive Director Jennifer Walling, who took part in some of the later negotiations for the bill, had a different way of phrasing it.
“I don't think it sounds right that there's not been incidents. I mean there is environmental pollution related to existing facilities,” Walling said. “But I think politically, anything that was in existing operation was off the table for discussion of this bill.” 

All but two of the components of the fracking fluid that SM Energy used in the Blessings 1-4H well were provided to them by Halliburton, a leader in the drilling industry which was once headed by former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney. During Cheney’s time in office, Congress passed a bill exempting hydraulic fracturing from the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act and prohibiting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from regulating the practice. Opponents of the practice have dubbed the law the “Halliburton loophole.”

But this isn’t a partisan issue. In his 2012 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama made natural gas the centerpiece of his energy policy. One of the most effective ways to extract natural gas is hydraulic fracturing, and Obama framed natural gas as a cleaner, greener alternative to traditional petroleum energy. Natural gas, which is essentially methane, is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and methane leaked into the atmosphere would contribute 20 times more to climate change than carbon emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Hydraulic fracturing is often associated with water contamination and the phenomenon of people setting their tap water on fire. This can happen when large amounts of methane get into the water supply.

“Nowhere has hydraulic fracturing ever caused flaming faucets,” said Richards. “There’s certainly been a lot of research done as to whether – and it wouldn’t have anything to do with hydraulic fracturing 
per se – oil and gas development can increase the amount of methane that is found in some aquifers.”

Last year, researchers from Duke University and a handful of other colleges published a study on hydraulic fracturing and water contamination in Pennsylvania and Texas. They found in several instances that oil and gas exploration had caused contamination of the water supply, but not because of hydraulic fracturing. The study showed underwater aquifers had been tainted by natural gas due to problems with the integrity of the well and the cement casing.

Oil companies in Illinois are drilling light-gravity crude oil, not natural gas. So it’s unlikely we’ll be seeing any flaming faucets if things go wrong.

Proponents of Illinois’ hydraulic fracturing law have called it the strictest set of regulations in the country. Among those are requirements that companies perform pressure tests on their wells and monitor water quality.

A recent drop in oil prices has temporarily called into question whether companies will be as eager to start the controversial process.

“There may be a pause here as to when this will happen, if it happens,” Richards said. “I mean, we still have to prove whether the resource is there or not. But if there’s a resource there, our full expectation is that the development will go forward at some point.”

The Blessings 1-4H well was acquired by Strata-X in 2014. It is one of two horizontal wells the company operates in Illinois.


Contact Alan Kozeluh at intern@illinoistimes.com.


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