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Wake-up call: new evidence that fracking is already happening in Illinois

Ann Alexander

Posted May 29, 2013 in Curbing Pollution, Health and the Environment

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We’ve been saying it till we’re blue in the face:   fracking is not only already legal in Illinois but has now started up.  And we’ve just confirmed new evidence of this fracking, thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

What does this mean for Illinoisans?  It means we need basic protections in place – yesterday – to limit environmental harm and give people a say in what could be happening right now in their communities.  We need meaningful citizen participation in decision-making and enforcement, as well as rules governing how fracking is conducted.  And that’s why, if the moratorium is voted down despite our relentless efforts over the past year, we’d better put in place a law that gives people a fighting chance at protecting themselves. That is what NRDC has been working for, and what the regulatory bill will provide. 

As for the proof of fracking starting up, take a look at this “well completion report” for a frack job performed last year.  The report indicates that the Campbell Energy “Salem H-1” well in White County was a horizontal frack that used a total of 640,151 gallons of fluid.   If that’s not high-volume horizontal fracking, then there’s no such thing. 

The other thing you will notice about the completion report is that it provides precious little other information about the well; and what it does provide about fluid volumes is voluntary disclosure, not required under current law.  The report does not specify what chemicals were injected into the ground.  It does not tell us where they got all that water they used, how air emissions were handled, or how close they were to any streams, public water supply intakes, schools, or churches.  The almost illegible handwriting, perhaps indicative of the level of care invested by permitees in the reporting process, is also a nice touch. 

And then there’s this – an application recently received by DNR from the Strata-X company for a horizontal well in Clay County.  The company’s press statement describes the well as having a 4,300 foot horizontal leg, and makes clear that the company is keeping open the option to complete the well with high-volume fracking.  You will also notice, once again, just how little information the application contains.  Honestly, it’s not much more paperwork than it takes to get a dog license.   

There could be more out there, but how would we know?  Current law does not actually require public disclosure of intent to conduct high-volume fracking. 

What we do know, however, ought to serve as a wake-up call.  It should make clear to anyone who views the regulatory bill as “opening the door” to fracking, or “green lighting” it, or serving as a “starting gun,” that fracking is already here.  The door is wide open, and the intruder is already inside the house.    

Of course, anyone can also see that high volume fracking is not currently widespread in Illinois.  Our state is not, at the present time, the fracking-dominated hellscape that one finds in parts of rural Pennsylvania or North Dakota.  And it’s pretty clear that the reason for that is regulatory uncertainty.  Companies know that the Illinois General Assembly is in the process of putting together a fracking regulatory bill, and it does not make sense for them to invest heavily in fracking when they don’t know for sure what the rules will be.  That’s especially true given that the regulatory bill contains a retroactive component, which would apply requirements to wells that were drilled before its passage. 

But if Illinois were to fail for the second year in a row to pass a either a regulatory bill or a moratorium, it’s a pretty sure bet that the current climate of regulatory uncertainty would give way to increasing certainty that Illinois is never going to get its act together.  And then a fracking free-for-all will no doubt commence, unconstrained. 

That is not a risk that we at NRDC are prepared to take – especially those of us who live here in Illinois.  We were not prepared to take the risk of letting industry write its own ticket in a regulatory bill that General Assembly members on both sides of the aisle lined up behind, notwithstanding our relentless efforts for more than a year to get a moratorium bill passed.   That is why we worked hard to make sure that, at the very least, Illinoisans would have such basic protections in place as access to courts, chemical disclosure, mandatory setbacks, prohibitions on storing waste in pits, regulation of air emissions more stringent than federal law, and sweeping public participation rights in the application decision-making process.

And should there be any remaining doubt that fracking is indeed legal, and that getting protections on the books is critical, just take a look through the current Illinois Oil and Gas Act.  Within the text of this decades-old law currently governing drilling operations in Illinois, there is not one single thing that prohibits fracking in this state, that ties industry’s hands or limits a full-on fracking rush.  The only hands that are tied in current law are those of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which is required under the law – with no room for discretion – to grant a permit within 48 hours to anyone who plunks down $100 and a detail-free application.   That, and not the regulatory bill, is the “green light” for fracking in Illinois.  If we can’t turn it into a red light, then we damn sure need some rules of the road.

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Comments

WillMay 29 2013 11:17 AM

This is a highly speculative repetition of an industry scare tactic that doesn't address the arguments others have made. It's also disingenuous for NRDC to claim support for a moratorium after doing so much to help marginalize and undercut those pushing for one.

But, I'm sure Ms. Alexander's former employer, Lisa Madigan, appreciates the help getting a few environmental leaders on board over the overwhelming objection of the environmental movement in fracking regions. I expect the number of downstate residents who favor a moratorium in the Capitol today will be far greater than those who showed up to the official environmental lobby day. We can only guess how much mobilizing the strong grassroots passion around this issue might have changed political realities, but sitting down to compromise with old friends on the Governor's staff must be easier than doing actual organizing outside Chicago.

Josh MogermanMay 29 2013 11:57 AM

Will---

Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, though I must admit I do not agree. I am a native Springfieldian. I have family in central Illinois. I come at this issue as an Illinoisan. And, as the documents Ann presents make clear, Illinoisans are left dangling in the wind if action is not taken to protect this state from fracking in the General Assembly.

NRDC has supported a moratorium from the get-go. Our staffers crisscrossed the state last year lining up dozens co-sponsors for a moratorium bill. The previous moratorium bill did not get a vote in the General Assembly. And all of the support that the coalition pulled together afterwards evaporated. We still support a moratorium and have noted this at every turn. However, we are not willing to leave this state unprotected from a dangerous practice that has already begun here. If a moratorium is not moving forward, we need rules in place to protect our communities and environment.

Michael BerndtsonMay 29 2013 11:58 AM

I live in Berwyn, IL so hellscapes are my expertise - well maybe not Berwyn, but Cicero our esteemed neighbor to the east is definitely no slouch. Now there's a post apocalyptic nightmare if ever there was one. Sorry Cicero. I kid.

Honest and sincere observations and concerns on navigating the shoals of Illinois politics. Take with the usual grain of salt, since it's from a random internet commenter.

1) The upstate/downstate mutually beneficial societies. There's a perceived hatred - but really the pols, agriculture and industry work hand and glove in Springfield. For example commodity traders living in Lake County and large acreage land holders in Mclean County and other areas south - may enjoy each other's company.

2) Illinois Industries. Caterpillar, which sells earthmoving equipment. Shale gas development requires massive amounts of site preparation, civil/earthwork and piping. Steel is milled in Illinois and Indiana and engineered throughout Illinois. Frac sand mining in Ottawa and elsewhere along rivers. Oil refining in Chicagoland and East Saint Louis needs sweeter and lighter oil to cut its tar sands bitumen that's flowing already from Canada. Ag chemicals wants cheap gas for fertilizer manufacturing. Plastics manufacturing (e.g. PVC and HDPE) in Central Illinois near Tuscola need cheap feedstock from natural gas (ethane and lighter liquids). All these industries could have bolted Illinois. God knows they've tried. But something or some deal always seems to keep them around.

3) Chicagoland suburban Republican - Urban Democrat alliances. Suburban politicians in Will, Kendall, DuPage, Kane, McHenry, Lake are now chiefly Republicans, but one or two generations back were democrats from neighborhood Chicago and cities like Berwyn. Conservative and "business oriented" on the one hand, but pro police, fire and construction trade unions (e.g. Operating Engineers - the guys running Caterpillar's equipment) on the other. Even when Democrats most upstate politicians were never environmentalists.

4) Many urban politicians think of environmentalisms as an ism that's not of their concern. State politicians in Cook County probably won't take a stand on fracking in Southern Illinois if something is offered for Austin, Hedwig, Rollins or Chicago Heights.

5) Illinois environmentalism seems to pretty much stop at waste management be it garbage or wastewater sludge management. Yes there are birders and friends of rivers, but we're talking a numbers game. Heavily industrialized upstate and agricultural rich downstate folks have always been and continue to be suspicious of "liberals." Illinois is not one of the top environmental protection states in the nation.

6) Illinois (Southern portion) was once the fourth largest oil producing state in the US about 25 years ago. Many of those mineral leases are owned by families, churches, heads of local chamber of commerce chapters and the usual suspects that have political pull in rural America.

7) Illinois coal. 3/4th of the state overlays the largest coal deposit in the nation. Since it would be infeasible to stripmine down to 1500 feet or so - not to mention farmland - coal seam methane by horizontal drilling and retorting (an offshoot of shale fracking) may be the big bonanza. New Albany is not all that gas rich. It's mostly oil and natural gas liquids O&G are interested in. It would be interesting to see if the "regulations" somehow permit coal seam methane extraction on say page xxx of the document in small print.

8) Illinois politics. The whole lot of them. From Cairo to Galena and all points east and west.

9) And on and on.

Policy solutions for those concerned about unfettered shale and coal seam development in Illinois? I'm completely clueless. I've never worked in policy, but am one of those people that are very concerned with what's happening in this state and throughout the US.

Martha FurstMay 29 2013 01:32 PM

I found Ann's piece to be highly informative, and to me at least, I have not found info necessarily easy to come by on this topic. I'm actually pro-fracking if it can be done wisely with thoughtful regulatory oversight that will encourage economic and energy development in Illinois but not at the expense of clean air and water. Let's get it right up front on regulation that works for business and environmentalist (and I consider myself some of both). I found it appalling that information on where fracking has started in Illinois is not readily known, so thank you for sharing it, Ann! Kudos!

Gerald QuindryMay 29 2013 03:10 PM

Martha,
One web site I have found informative is from the Illinois State Geological Survey at http://moulin.isgs.uiuc.edu/ILOIL/webapp/ILOIL.html Or just Google "Illinois Oil and Gas Resources" and you should be able to find it.

A look at the maps at that site will dispel any impression that Southeastern Illinois is unfamiliar with issues that accompany oil production. True, the new large-scale operations are LARGE scale, and there will be issues to face. I was asked to give a presentation to a local service organization in the area several months ago. I started the presentation with a quote attributed to Dolly Parton: "If you want rainbows, you have to put up with the rain."

WillMay 29 2013 10:01 PM

"We still support a moratorium and have noted this at every turn."

Josh, it may console you to believe that. It may pacify some of NRDCs angry members to claim that you still support a moratorium. But, the reality is that there's no voice in Illinois more effective at undercutting the push for a moratorium than the environmental groups currently supporting the regulatory bill. That support has allowed politicians to portray the proposed regulations as environmentally safe, which you know is not true, and has allowed them to dismiss and ignore the environmental movement pushing for a moratorium. By their actions, NRDC is not only not supporting a moratorium, but is actively marginalizing those working to build support for one. NRDCs actions have effectively made them enemy #1 of those pushing for a moratorium because industry could never be so effective at marginalizing environmentalists as our own leaders have been. Regardless of what happened in the past, in this moment, NRDCs actions do not support a moratorium and it's dishonest to continue making that claim.
I know that all of you in the statehouse crowd are reassuring yourselves that you're doing the right thing. But participating in negotiations without including enviro representatives from fracking regions was not right, choosing an insider strategy of compromise without making a serious push at organizing the downstate grassroots wasn't right, and I can assure you that NRDC's position is far, far out of step with the overwhelming majority of Illinois environmentalists.

Anne's anecdote about a single rogue operator hardly supports the industry blackmail tactic you're repeating. If industry didn't desire regulatory safety then they already would have started fracking on a large scale. They haven't.

Josh MogermanMay 30 2013 02:38 PM

Will, again, thanks for taking the time to comment. I wish there was an opportunity for more dialog on this issue and would be happy to chat any time. I am sure we agree that the status quo is untenable and communities need protections. We’d prefer it if those protections were offered by moratorium. But if that pause cannot happen, we feel it’s critical to get protections in place immediately to protect against an urgent, and happening, threat with well-documented risks. Clearly, we disagree on how to get there and the danger that inaction puts on our state. But I hope we can remain united in concern over an industry that is run amok and putting Americans at risk in Illinois and across the country.

Perhaps if many of the groups that have recently engaged on the fracking issue in Illinois had been involved earlier, we might have made more progress when we were battling industry-written bills and spearheading the effort to line up dozens of co-sponsors for a moratorium bill last year. Those voices might have helped to prevent political support for that moratorium bill from shifting away, leaving us little choice but to engage in negotiations around a regulatory bill that was moving fast with or without us, in order to prevent another industry-written bill from advancing. NRDC and other groups were elected to participate in the negotiations and represent the interests of the environment by the broader Illinois enviro community--including some from fracking regions in the state.

While we would have preferred the moratorium that NRDC and others worked so hard to push last year, we feel it is our responsibility to the people at risk right now in Illinois to make sure that the regulatory bill offers as much protections as possible, particularly given that fracking is not only already legal but has already begun here.

Our work does not stop here; in fact, it is only the beginning. We continue to support a moratorium on fracking for the state. But we simply are not willing to cross our fingers and hope that nothing happens if unregulated fracking is allowed to continue for another year. So we will continue to fight to protect Illinoisans, and all Americans, from the risks of fracking, any way we can.

Michael BerndtsonMay 31 2013 11:06 AM

So apparently the environmental NGO "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval" worked. Illinois House passed fracking like 108 to 9 or something close to that.

"I can get a good look at a T-bone by sticking my head up a bull's [hind quarters], but I'd rather take a butcher's word for it." - Tommy's dad from the movie Tommy Boy.

...and again from Tommy Boy on voluntary regulations without Federal outline (or guarantees as discussed in the movie):

Tommy: Let’s think about this for a sec, Ted. Why would somebody put a guarantee on a box? Hmmm, very interesting.

Ted Nelson, Customer: Go on, I’m listening.
Tommy: Here’s the way I see it, Ted. Guy puts a fancy guarantee on a box ’cause he wants you to feel all warm and toasty inside.

Ted Nelson, Customer: Yeah, makes a man feel good.

Tommy: ‘Course it does. Why shouldn’t it? Ya figure you put that little box under your pillow at night, the Guarantee Fairy might come by and leave a quarter, am I right, Ted?
[chuckles until he sees that Ted is not laughing]

Ted Nelson, Customer: [impatiently] What’s your point?

Tommy: The point is, how do you know the fairy isn’t a crazy glue sniffer? “Building model airplanes” says the little fairy; well, we’re not buying it. He sneaks into your house once, that’s all it takes. The next thing you know, there’s money missing off the dresser, and [edited out by mjb]. I seen it a hundred times.

Ted Nelson, Customer: But why do they put a guarantee on the box?

Tommy: Because they know all they sold ya was a guaranteed [edited: poorly made thing]. That’s all it is, isn’t it? Hey, if you want me to [edited: leave something] in a box and mark it guaranteed, I will. I got spare time. But for now, for your customer’s sake, for your daughter’s sake, ya might wanna think about buying a quality product from me.

Ted Nelson, Customer: [pause] Okay, I’ll buy from you.
.....

It's now just a waiting game.

WillJun 1 2013 12:11 PM

Josh, this is an interesting narrative NRDC is creating, but I now what actually happened.
Faith in Place and others were negotiating on small compromise regulatory bills from the get-go, over two years ago. There was never a unified, push for a moratorium that engaged the grassroots, certainly not by NRDC. It was an insider strategy of compromise from the start. There was never going to be strong legislative support for a moratorium while NRDC and others were publicly telling legislators to expect a compromise on regulation, which they were doing all along. The enviro statehouse strategy undercut support for a moratorium from the start.
The grassroots support was there, ready to be engaged, if national and Chicago based environmental groups had chosen to do so. It's too bad enviro groups didn't recognize the passion around this issue that could have been engaged to create power for the movement. We would have a stronger, united movement in Illinois instead of a deeply divided, defeated one serving the interests of state politicians.

If NRDC is going to repair it's badly damaged reputation with the Illinois environmental movement (which will be impossible with many activists) it's going to have to start from a point of honesty, not with this fictional narrative NRDC is pushing about compromising only after pushing hard for a moratorium.

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