Lost in all the discussions of economic possibility from natural gas drilling in downstate Illinois are the economic and environmental liabilities of fracking.
Despite cavalier statements from boosters of this newly popular drilling technique -- made possible, in part, by pumping millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals underground at high pressure to fracture the rocks and free up pockets of oil or gas -- fracking has been associated with poisoned water resources, toxic air pollution, plummeting property values and crushing truck traffic. You may have heard the recent NPR story on growing scientific attention to the Midwest's increasing seismic activity, which is being attributed to underground disposal of fracking wastewater.
Whether you support the industry or not, you should be very worried about how the state has prepared for the coming fracking boom.
Despite growing national attention, Illinois has no fracking laws or permitting process. The Department of Natural Resources' archaic regulations remain inadequately focused on well-drilling, leaving us dangerously poised to repeat the hard lessons of Pennsylvania regarding the industrialization of rural areas and damage to essential water resources.
The fracking genie is out of the bottle in Illinois, but that does not mean we should let him smash up the place. Faith in Place and the Natural Resources Defense Council are trying to help the state modernize its rules. NRDC will be submitting technical documents to legislators this week to help push for protective statutes that would enforce recognized industry best practices that have been ignored in many states previously infected with gas fever.
Faith in Place has been advancing a bill that would force transparency on what chemicals are being used in fracking fluids. With reports of jet fuel, carcinogenic chemicals and a rogue's gallery of toxics being used in the fracking process in other states, this is no small thing. The bill also would address proper wastewater disposal and requirements for the well casings that are essential to keeping fracking fluids out of community water resources. These actions represent a good start in addressing the most immediate threats to public health and safety, though they are far from complete.
Energy issues are mired in partisan battles. But fracking should not be seen as an ideological issue. Look at Ohio, where Governor John Kasich, a staunch Republican, has made strong public statements about the need for robust safety standards and transparency on the chemicals being used in fracking fluids. NRDC has been actively engaged to help make sure that tougher laws deliver real protections of public health and safety when the state concludes its current regulatory revamp effort.
Natural gas is trading at near record-low prices, in part due to the massive increase in supplies now available domestically. That should give Governor Pat Quinn, House Speaker Michael Madigan and the General Assembly time to take a breath and do this right. That means a thorough evaluation of the risks that informs the tough, legally binding safeguards we desperately need in place to protect the public health and interests.
To rush unprepared into widespread drilling downstate without appropriate regulations would be monumentally foolish. We simply cannot afford to trade short-term economic activity for long-term environmental and community impacts that would also be detrimental to the agriculture sector that buoys the downstate economy (but is utterly reliant on clean water to grow crops).
We have to take the long view here. We just want to make sure that the strongest protections are in place in Illinois before these procedures start. And if we cannot do that, we simply should not start fracking.
This post originally appeared as a joint Op-Ed with Faith in Place director Rev. Dr. Clare Butterfield in Crain's Chicago Business (a publication which has done a nice job of looking at this issue as it emerges downstate).