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Frances Beinecke’s Blog

Protecting Communities from Fracking's Impacts

Frances Beinecke

Posted May 24, 2013 in Health and the Environment

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With fracking already underway in 30 states and advancing at a breakneck speed, safeguards have not been adequate to protect communities, public health or the environment. I’ve seen the damage from the oil and gas industry’s unfettered advance firsthand. My conversations with people whose lives have been dramatically impacted were heartbreaking and continue to inform our work to protect communities from the dangers of this controversial practice. Nearly everywhere that this heavy industrial activity is operating, residents have reported contaminated drinking water supplies, heavy traffic, polluted air and a wide range of other impacts. From town to town, unfortunately, the stories we hear are all the same.

That’s why NRDC is opposed to expanded fracking nationwide unless and until sufficient safeguards are in place. Unfortunately, despite the fact that fracking continues to spread like wildfire; we’ve yet to see comprehensive safeguards like this enacted anywhere—at the state or federal levels. And that’s not surprising since the oil and gas industry has tremendous power. At the same time, thorough scientific analysis of the risks presented by fracking to human health and the environment are incomplete. As we watch the contamination of air, water and land resources increase, and climate pollution accelerate at an alarming pace, we need to move away from fossil fuel extraction, rather than rush to embrace it. We need to take the time to assess, understand and respond to the threats of fracking, rather than continue the rush to extract natural gas at the risk of our safety and future.

In places like New York, where fracking has not been made legal, we have an opportunity to learn from the mistakes we’ve seen unfold around the country and avoid putting residents at risk in the first place. Working with a wide coalition of community and environmental groups there, we’ve thrown our efforts behind advancing a moratorium to give the state the time necessary to thoroughly evaluate fracking’s risks before determining how to proceed on the proposed industrial process.

Unfortunately, not every state has gotten that chance. Many people are already exposed to risks from fracking run amok because it’s legal and/or happening in their states right now. So while we advocate for the proper scientific reviews of fracking, its dangers and protections, we must also work to protect people where it currently poses the risk of threatening their health.

This means, immediately, in Illinois, Ohio, Colorado, California and dozens of other states, passing laws that put in place protections against this urgent threat, which guarantees citizens’ rights to protect themselves and their communities. Among other things, citizens should have the right to know what chemicals frackers are using in their backyards. They should have the right to participate in public review of proposals to frack. They should have a right to require companies to follow standards that protect their communities and the environment from known risks and dangers. They should have access to courts to enforce the law where governments are unwilling or unable to do so. And they should be able to take their futures into their own hands, so they can say “no” to fracking in their communities if the residents don’t want it there.

Of course, the oil and gas industry disagrees, as if the right to endanger citizens and communities is essential to our economy. And we often need to employ a variety of means to fight back against this powerful opponent.

Take, for example, our recent work in Illinois. Right now, fracking is already legal there. Anyone with $100 can get a permit to frack after a 48-hour waiting period. And there are currently almost no rules in place for them to follow after they get it. Further compounding this threat is the fact that a lease rush has been underway for some time, and there are indications that the first frackers have already broken ground there.

NRDC fought hard for a moratorium in the state and we were disappointed when one failed to pass the legislature last year. In the aftermath of that defeat, a process to put fracking regulations in place took off, with strong involvement from industry. With that train moving fast, we decided we could not sit back and let industry write its own rules while fracking was already legal and posing an immediate threat. So—while continuing to support a moratorium in the state—our Midwest team felt a responsibility to ensure there was a seat at the table for the environment and public health when those regulations were drafted.

The resulting pending regulatory bill is not the comprehensive sufficient safeguards we’ve been calling for, and won’t make fracking “safe.” We believe the state should enact a moratorium on fracking unless and until the threats are fully analyzed and appropriate safeguards identified. But the bill would provide some important, immediate protections against an existing and legal threat that otherwise are not in place to meet the present realities of legal, unrestricted fracking. These protections would force frackers into the bright light of the law with tough construction standards, the burden of liability if water is impacted, mandated water testing, and most importantly, the ability for the public to take part in permitting processes to push back on drilling in their area and access to the courts to enforce the law.

NRDC has always stood up for people in harm’s way. That’s what we’re doing—and will continue to do—in Illinois and on fracking nationwide, any way we can. In the meantime, we will continue fighting every day to advance clean energy that can’t spill or contaminate our drinking water, so we can move away from dirty fossil fuels as quickly as possible.

 

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Comments

Protect Southern IllinoisMay 25 2013 12:10 PM

Frances: Why is NRDC supporting a bill in Illinois that does not meet the standards you lay out above? Local communities would have no say over where fracking woul take place under the bill NRDC negotiated. Instead, we'd be left to the mercy of a DNR that is chronically underfunded and unprepared to adequately protect our health and environment from the fossil fuel industry. Just look at what's happened with coal mining in our state! NRDC is sacrificing the local communities it claims to protect in order to try to declare victory in Illinois on fracking. This may please your wealthy donors but it will not adequately protect the communities that are in harm's way.

Henry HendersonMay 25 2013 07:39 PM

Frances Beinecke addresses all of the issues raised in the comment above.
As an Illinois citizen and native of Southern Illinois, I feel a responsibility to respond, and reiterate the points clearly articulated in Ms. Beinecke’s blog. NRDC supports the passage of bill because it will establish citizen rights to be part of the decision making on fracking, and will assure citizens’ access to the courts to defend themselves and the public interest.
It is clear that NRDC supports the bill because it advances citizen democracy, and establishes disclosure requirements on would-be frackers that will help citizens protect themselves and respond to fracking proposals.
As the blog makes clear: at this moment Illinois law only requires a fracker to pay $100 to obtain a permit to frack from the state in 48 hours.
And note: fracking has already begun in the state.
These awful realities need to be fixed now.
NRDC supports the bill because it begins to fix the unacceptable status quo, establishing in law the conditions that empower citizens to protect themselves: access to courts and decision-making processes.

The blog is also clear that NRDC has vigorously supported a moratorium on fracking, and continues to advocate that fracking not occur in Illinois or anywhere else, because further scientific analysis and institutional protections are needed for our communities. Progress on these requirements is needed now. And establishing citizen legal rights is fundamental to making that progress.

Protect Southern IllinoisMay 26 2013 12:14 AM

Henry, those are nice words, but you misunderstand my point. Yes, your bill creates some regulations that look nice on paper, but who is going to enforce them? The bill does not allow local communities to pass their own laws on fracking. DNR is the only agency that is given any authority, just like it already has authority over coal mining. Can you honestly tell me that DNR has done an adequate job of protecting us from the coal industry? You talk about citizens' rights, but citizens have the right to challenge mining permits, too, and that has not been enough to protect us.

Will ReynoldsMay 26 2013 06:55 PM

1) I have not met any environmental leader from fracking regions in Illinois who believes the proposed regulations are remotely sufficient or adequate.

This bill would prevent local communities from adding restrictions. It would require all permits to be approved or denied within 60 days by a department that's understaffed, underfunded and notoriously cozy with industry. It's unknown whether fines would be enforced or be meaningful enough to deter violations.

2) Even the link in this piece suggests companies are waiting to frack until a regulatory bill passes. The claim that it's already happening is an empty threat used by industry and it's a shame to see it repeated by environmental leaders. They're waiting because they need the legal protections that come with regulation. NRDC is helping to launch fracking in Illinois.

3) It's good that NRDC felt there should be "a seat at the table for the environment and public health" but there was no seat at the negotiating table for environmental leaders from the areas threatened by fracking. It's inappropriate for a group that has made no commitment to organize in downstate Illinois to negotiate away protections from the safety of their Chicago and DC offices. Based on reactions to the bill, downstate Illinois leaders who will have to live with the consequences would have demanded fewer compromises.

4) The participation of NRDC and other environmental groups in negotiations has allowed politicians and industry to present the regulatory bill as environmentally safe and marginalize citizens in fracking regions who are still pushing for a moratorium. Your claim to still support a moratorium on fracking is belied by your actions that have completely undercut those pushing for one.

I'm sure NRDC strengthened their relationship with Governor Quinn and Attorney General Lisa Madigan by playing ball and participating in a compromise. Perhaps if NRDC had strengthened their relationship with downstate environmentalists by helping to organize a serious grassroots push for a moratorium, the political realities could have changed in our favor.

Henry HendersonMay 26 2013 08:12 PM

Thanks for the continued attention to the issue of limits on government capacity. The environment and democracy are not safely left in the exclusive power of government. That is not the American way.
Citizen enforcement is at the heart of both the Clean Air Ac and the Clean Water Act, which NRDC helped turn into law. And which NRDC helped to enforce through determined, tireless citizen litigation against polluters and against government bureaucrats who fail to protect the public interest.
Repeated statements about government inadequacy underscores the importance of the legislation: it will assure citizen access to courts and processes that do not presently exist. And provide access to information necessary to participate meaningfully in decisions---which is presently impossible, and fracking proceeds without limits, transparency and accountability.
The present legislation will not fix everything, and no one in the environmental community has said it will make fracking "safe"---which is why we support a moratorium. And among the important needs is repeal of the legal restrictions placed on traditional community land use powers by the Oil and Gas.This is a goal clearly shared by the Illinois environmental community.

Stanley R ScobieMay 26 2013 08:33 PM

Folks,

I presume that, in the legislative sausage maker, there have been some possibly critical modifications to the plan that was originally proposed for rule making about high volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing in shale formations (often shorthanded as "fracking") in Illinois.

It would be extremely valuable to those of us in other states that are wrestling with this fossil monster if commenters and bloggers on this site could offer some links to the currently proposed rules and the original proposal that a number of entities including NRDC and Sierra folks participated in.

Thanks.

Stanley R Scobie, Ph.D., Senior Fellow, PSE Healthy Energy
http://psehealthyenergy.org/


Protect Southern IllinoisMay 26 2013 08:53 PM

Henry, your paean to citizen enforcement is meaningless unless NRDC is willing to put its money where it's mouth is. Is NRDC ready to commit to doing whatever it takes to make sure our drinking water is protected? Those of us who leave in coal country (soon to be frack country) downstate have struggled for years to find lawyers ready to pursue the kind of "citizen enforcement" that you place so much stock in. NRDC has not given us any help in the coal mining fight and destructive mines move forward despite our best efforts to stop them. Why should we believe that this will be any different? If this bill passes, you will go home to Chicago to tell your donors what a great thing you did, and we will be left to fend for ourselves without the money to pay for the lawyers that you claim will protect us.

Gerald QuindryMay 27 2013 08:46 AM

Dr. Scobie,
The full text of the legislation can be found at http://www.ilga.gov/legislation/fulltext.asp?DocName=&SessionId=85&GA=98&DocTypeId=SB&DocNum=1715&GAID=12&LegID=72606&SpecSess=&Session= If the link is broken by the blog software here, you can search "Illinois Legislature SB 1715 text" and find it. Ignore the reference to the original short title. Apparently, when the bill was early in the sausage-making stage, it was attached to different legislation that had something to do with weights and measures.
Is the bill perfect? No. Is it a huge leap forward? Yes, in my opinion, and I hope it passes.

Gerald QuindryMay 27 2013 08:54 AM

Oops! As I suspected before posting above, the link is broken doesn't get you where you need to go. Too bad we can't edit our own comments! Use the search term in your favorite search engine and click on the link to the full text.

James Singmaster, III, Ph.D.May 28 2013 02:54 PM

Dumbness continues with fighting bad energy without mention of how to get clean energy. When will environmental groups wake up to MAKING THE SUN OUR SOLE ENERGY SOURCE!!!!!!!!!!!
I have sent many comments on this to NRDC staff and got several comments posted on Switchboard and other blogs detailing how to get clean energy including considerable clean-up of toxics wastes by MAKING THE SUN OUR SOLE ENERGY SOURCE.
The useless Climate Summit being held now misses the boat as we need an ENERGY SUMMIT. If we get to MAKING THE SUN OUR SOLE ENERGY SOURCE, climate change can be reversed as we would aliminate all fossil and nuclear energy, thereby stopping our dumping extra heat and CO2 and soot into the environment.
AND THERE WOULD BE NO MORE FRACKING UP OUR CHILDREN'S FUTURES. Dr. J. Singmaster, III

JoAnn ConradJun 1 2013 10:52 PM

I am sad that such a large group as yourself would support any fracking regulatory bill. The only position to have taken and to take in the future is simply that no fracking is safe. Any green group should draw a line in the sand and say NO to fracking and no to l oil / gas money ever for any reason.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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