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The wild (Mid)west: drilling industry moving in on Illinois with no safeguards in place

Nick Magrisso

Posted November 15, 2012

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Earlier this fall, a horizontal drilling permit was issued by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to SM Energy, a company engaged in oil and natural gas development in North America.  While SM Energy has stated that it does not intend to use high volume hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” nothing in the permit prevents the company from doing so.  Coupled with ongoing reports by industry representatives of hydraulically fractured test wells being sunk in the southern region of the state, this permit makes clear that dangerous fracking is on Illinois’ doorstep – and the state is completely unprepared.

In light of these developments – the threats posed by fracking could not be more imminent, and the need for a statewide moratorium could not be more pressing.

Hydraulic fracturing, or, as it is more commonly known, “fracking,” is the practice of injecting large volumes of water, mixed with dangerous toxic chemicals and sand, deep underground at high-pressure to create fractures in layers of bedrock. In the case of Illinois, the fracking would be in rock known as shale.  This process is used to extract what were previously considered inaccessible reserves of natural gas and oil.  Illinois sits within the New Albany Shale, which is being targeted for oil and gas development.

Currently, Illinois has no safeguards in place to protect against the oil and gas industry running amok as the industry has done in the dozens of states that have fracking operations.  As fracking expands across the nation, so does the potential for devastation to communities who must contend with polluted air, water and landscapes and plummeting property values.  The devastation is not confined to any one state or region, and the oil and gas industry’s track record is far from stellar.  What the industry has left in its wake are unaddressed concerns about the impacts of fracking on our health and the environment.  The toll and the symptoms are almost too many to name, while the industry responses have been thin to nonexistent.  The oil and gas industry plans to drill about a mile into the earth and up to two miles horizontally to access oil and gas.  That is about as far apart as the oil and gas industry in Illinois is from common sense safeguards that NRDC, environmental groups across the state, and key agencies and decision makers have recommended the state adopt. 

Specifically, NRDC along with many others, are recommending that the Illinois General Assembly pass comprehensive fracking legislation to require or ensure, among other things:

  • A citizens right to take part in the process of permitting wells and appealing permits;
  • Adequate disclosure of the toxic chemicals companies plan to pump underground;
  • Testing and monitoring for contamination before and after fracking;
  • Prohibition on the use of unnecessary toxic chemicals such as BTEX chemicals (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene), and a requirement that drillers prove for any toxic chemical that no safer alternatives exists;
  • Tough standards for waste storage and disposal, and an end in Illinois to the loophole in federal law exempting drilling and fracking waste from being treated as hazardous – one of the many federal loopholes the oil and gas industry enjoys; and
  • Measures to limit air pollution from both the fracking operations and the heavy truck traffic that accompanies it.

The oil and gas industry would recommend, well, quite frankly, that nothing be done – as demonstrated by industry representatives’ most recent actions.  The industry is buying up land and permits in Illinois at breakneck pace so it can begin drilling here without concern or accountability for the full environmental and health impacts of its operations.  Sure, the oil and gas industry has a plan for what it considers “acceptable” regulations, too, but its bar for “acceptable” is a pretty low one.  None of the common sense protections listed above are part of industry’s proposal.

Illinois decision makers need to protect Illinois’ citizens, not the pockets of oil and gas interests.  Illinois has a tremendous opportunity to lead the nation and get the rules right by developing responsible standards to govern fracking and by continuing to invest in clean energy, as we have done with energy efficiency and renewable energy – policies that have created thousands of jobs across the state.  However, taking that opportunity to lead on fracking rules will require going beyond partisan divides and ideological rhetoric.  It will require coming together to ensure no dangerous, “wild west” fracking happens on our watch.  And we should do so, because if we do not act together to ensure that fracking is done responsibly if at all, we will end up facing a legacy of pollution together, with the taxpayers left to foot the bill for clean up.

Industry’s failure to work with environmentalists and community members in any meaningful way toward this goal, coupled with the imminent threat of fracking operations commencing, is why NRDC is calling on legislators to support a moratorium until the state has developed the kinds of protective standards that ensure safer practice.  Until those much-needed robust standards are in place, Illinois must pass a moratorium in order to protect against the dangers of unregulated or deficiently regulated drilling devastating our communities.  If you or someone you know live in Illinois, please contact your State Senate and House members now and ask that they commit to cosponsoring Senate Bill 3280 – a temporary moratorium on hydraulic fracturing. 

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Michael BerndtsonNov 15 2012 01:21 PM

To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, "I'm from Illinois and I'm here to help." The New Albany shale formation is mostly in the southern portion of the state so I'm not sure you can get there from Chicago.

Josh MogermanNov 15 2012 03:00 PM

Michael, I-57 goes the whole way, and connects with Illinois route 50...

Tom WolfNov 15 2012 03:33 PM

Sorry, Nick....but your post is one-sided and hyperbolic.

I dare say that it also rends pointless the effectiveness of any outreach to legislators because you're giving readers misguided information that legislators will see through.

If the NRDC doesn't want fracking to happen in the state, then just say so and prepare to lobby legislators if and when the bill comes forward for a vote.

I'm still trying to figure out why the NRDC is at the negotiating table in Springfield when you don't want a bill at all.

This does disservice to the people who actually think a sweet spot can be found to increase oil and gas production (and the economic development that comes with it) while giving ample protection to our environment.

Nick MagrissoNov 15 2012 07:16 PM

Thanks, Tom, for taking the time to read my blog!

To be clear, as my blog unambiguously states, NRDC is actively engaged in working towards protective solutions for oil and gas drilling in Illinois and throughout the country -- some of which are listed above. I can only hope that common sense will prevail, and that no rational person, or interest, would argue against such reasonable standards. But short of those standards being put in to place, we will continue to pursue a moratorium as protection against the many known risks of unreggulated fracking moving forward in Illinois.

Again, thanks for reading my blog!

Mike S.Nov 15 2012 08:59 PM


The GAO just released a report that there is no evidence that fracking is harmful to the environment. Do you have any evidence at all that fracking is dangerous?

Not evidence that a few oil wells have been screwed up and caused localized pollution, but evidence that the fracking process itself is dangerous.

Please enlighten your readers.

Nick MagrissoNov 16 2012 12:09 AM

Mike, I reccomend reading my colleague's blog, Amy Mall, who blogged on the GAO report here:

Liz PatulaNov 17 2012 12:47 PM

I am from Southern Illinois, and I have met victims of fracking, both from IL and from other states. We do NOT want fracking here. It's ridiculous to say that this is a good idea for the people who have to live next to this stuff. We need to work on smarter ways to develop jobs here - support local agriculture, tourism, develop benign and sustainable energy sources, etc. We can develop jobs here without traumatizing the people who live here, and fracking is not a solution to anything; it will create more problems than it will solve.

To anyone who says that fracking is safe, I can only say that you have not met the victims. I still cannot figure out how anyone is saying this process is benign when residents are forced out of their homes to protect their health, as advised by their physicians; when tests show the same chemicals in residents' water as are being used by the drillers; when residents and workers get sick from the air contamination around fracking activities, etc.

A smart, compassionate plan for Southern Illinois involves smart, compassionate technologies which do not threaten the health of the people who live here.

Mike S.Nov 18 2012 10:21 AM


I just looked at Amy's blog that you reference. It doesn't even mention fracking because the GAO report said there is no evidence that fracking has caused environmental damage.

It confirms that there are other risks associated with drilling that, of course, must be managed.

Louise CookNov 18 2012 10:29 PM

"Shale gas and oil drilling pose environmental and public health risks, but the extent of those risks is unknown, the Congressional Government Accountability Office says in new study."

If you are going to quote the GAO report, at least have the decency to quote it fairly and honestly.

I have researched hundreds ... I am being literal here, I am at over three hundred now and rapidly climbing ... serious sources about fracking, and it DOES contaminate water, both the fracking and the waste disposal wells. The situation is made worse by operators who are callous, inconsiderate, and at times brutal to the local citizens. Crimes of violence, including rape and assault, go up markedly when fracking crews come to town. Local communities are forced to hire additional emergency personnel, retrain their fire departments, and repair heavily damaged roadways. Highway accidents spike because of the incredible increase in heavy traffic due to the water and waste haulage.

People lose the ability to insure their property or get loans or mortgages. Property values drop into the cellar.

Employment options are mostly filled by outsiders brought in by the drilling companies. Local job increases average about one to two jobs per well, counting extra business at local restaurants and hotels.

If you want to defend fracking, at least do some honest research. The facts are out there, in scientific journals, law journals, and respected publications. All you have to do is have an open mind, and look, and keep digging even after you hear what you want to hear.

Louise CookNov 18 2012 10:39 PM

Nick, sorry, I was responding to Tom Wolf but a copy paste error omitted that part, and also the part that said, "Oh, and water contamination due to fracking has been definitively proven by the Pavilion, Wyoming re-testing insisted upon by the fracking industry, done according to its own guidelines."

Dawn DannenbringJan 4 2013 12:19 PM

Tom, What are your interests here? Are you part of the oil and gas industry? Your comments lead me to believe you have a vested interest on behalf of oil and gas. Truly, I wonder why oil and gas reps should be at the negotiating table when their interest is clearly monetary. Why have groups like Illinois People's Action, SAFE, and Food and Water Watch--groups whose only interest is what is in the best interest of Illinois citizens--not been invited to the table. That is the true travesty. The groups at the table are skewed toward the industry in the first place. The anti-fracking voices need to be part of the conversation.

glen weaverMar 20 2013 07:32 PM

I have attended meetings on the danger of fracking, and have never heard it proved fracking is a problem. I think why Illinois people in the northern part are fighting it is because if you are not from Chicago, you are nothing. They will not vote for anything that would improve industry in So. Illinois. We in so.Ill. wish Chicago would become a state of their own, and leave us alone

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