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Commentary: New fracking evidence a wake-up call for Illinois

Ann Alexander is a Chicago-based senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Ann Alexander is a Chicago-based senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Cross-posted from NRDC Switchboard
By Ann Alexander

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.

The NRDC is a member of RE-AMP, which also publishes Midwest Energy News.

Comments (4)

The application you link to is dated March 11, 2013. You also state that: “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.” If that is the case, has this application been approved? Also, it looks like an application to drill, not an application to frack. Under the new legislation being passed, wont they need to apply for an entirely separate and new fracking permit if they decide to use that sort of completion method?

Thanks!

By Clearview2 on May 30, 2013

Of course the State of Illinois needs a comprehensive bill to protect the environment against damage from fracking. However, if the Department of Natural Resources applies and enforces any fracking legislation like it does coal mining applications, we are in deep trouble. IDNR approves all mine permit applications regardless of existing violations and ongoing damage to communities. IDNR’s interpretation of mining laws coincides with the promotion of coal, not the protection of communities. How is the environment protected when IDNR approves underground coal slurry injection, coal combustion waste disposal in mines, and permanent high hazard coal slurry dam impoundments in communities. Fossil fuel industries are “king” in Illinois; our environment will be similar to that in the West Virginia. For more information, check out citizensagainstlongwallmining.org

By Mary Ellen DeClue on May 30, 2013

Clearview, the Campbell well was Fracked last year.

By Jmogs on May 30, 2013

I drive by the fields where Campbell completed their well a few times a week, and in the meantime they’ve drilled between 10 and 20 more, all in the same area. Anyone familiar with the oilfield at all knew they were doing it, and our local media continued to promote the line that fracking wasn’t taking place in the state of Illinois. Also troubling, the location where this is going on is only a few miles from the water supplies of our town, and in an area where active mining is going on beneath. Our town is inundated with companies leasing land, and the locals are eating it up with no local discussion of what is taking place, other than most of the landowners complaining that they haven’t gotten paid. Our county council signed a resolution of support for the process without discussion. I’d try speaking out myself but in the current environment, I’m afraid I’d be lynched. Thanks for bringing this up someplace.

By WIlliam on Jun 3, 2013