Cracks in the Basin - Part 1: Illinois: A “National Model”?

 /  Jan. 16, 2014, 9:57 p.m.

A natural gas fracking well near Shreveport, Louisiana.

Marathon Oil’s YouTube video begins with a shot of arid scrubland and the caption “Drilling and Fracking a typical Eagle Ford well; Karnes County, Texas; Summer 2012.” When the caption vanishes, so do the plants; earthmoving equipment strips them away, swarming around a tiny hole in the center of the cleared area. With the help of big-rig trucks, a slim metal tower rises over the hole, dangling a cable that sways jerkily in the video’s time-lapse. At the end of the cable, a drill bit chews towards the Eagle Ford Shale Basin, a spongy, oil-filled layer of rock over a mile below ground. When the bit reaches the Basin, it turns 90 degrees and chews a mile-long horizontal tunnel through the rock. Mission accomplished, the bit returns to the surface. The tower vanishes as quickly as it came. Another caption announces: “hydraulic fracturing”. Trucks and hoses bustle around the hole, lowering in explosive charges to shatter that brittle shale sponge before pumping in millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals that Marathon Oil is not legally required to disclose. When this ‘fracturing fluid’ pries open the shale and is sucked back to the surface, oil flows behind it. The trucks vanish, leaving nothing but a stubby, U-shaped piping structure over the small hole. The video’s electric guitar soundtrack reaches a triumphant crescendo, complemented by one final caption: “Ready for production.”

An oil company like Marathon has reason to celebrate. Since 1998, when Texas driller George Mitchell perfected the technique of coaxing natural gas from mile-deep shale, hundreds of thousands of “fracking” wells have been bored into the American landscape. They pull oil and gas from beneath Texas’s arid scrubland, North Dakota’s prairie, Pennsylvania’s rolling hills, and California’s Santa Barbara Channel. They even snake under the campus of Indiana State University and the runways of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Each one is chasing a small fraction of 750 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and twenty-four billion barrels of oil. That’s enough, according to the International Energy Administration, to make America the world’s top oil producer by 2017.

This energy bonanza has provided gleams of economic hope throughout a recession-battered America. Perhaps the most dramatic story has been the sudden turnaround of western North Dakota, which, until recently, faced crippling depopulation and a shriveling tax base. No longer: In recent years, the heartland of America’s fracking boom has seen a massive influx of new residents, billions of dollars in tax revenue, and millions more in lease checks from energy companies directly to residents. However, those residents have plenty of new problems to contend with. In March 2013, when National Geographic reporter Edwin Dobb headed to the region, he found rural roads clogged with big-rig trucks, astronomical rent increases that had driven many residents away, and all the crime and social upheaval one would expect in a twenty-first century Wild West saga. “Thousands of people are converging on the area,” he observed, “looking for work, looking for redemption, looking for trouble. But how does a region of farms and small towns weather the human onslaught?”

“Another risk,” he notes, “is environmental damage.”

That risk has given rise to a grassroots, nationwide environmental movement. Galvanized by Josh Fox’s 2009 Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland, which profiled the serious health problems, corporate bullying, and flammable tap water endured by the neighbors of frack wells, the movement asserts that the environmental costs of fracking far outweigh its benefits. Activists doubt that the steel-and-concrete casings surrounding fracking wells can insulate them—and the chemical cocktail of fracking fluids—from contact with groundwater. Gasland’s scenes showing jars of murky, carcinogen-laced water from once-pristine wells suggest that these concerns hold merit, as do the nosebleeds and other illnesses that have cropped up around fracking wells. Another concern: Methane, a greenhouse gas with 30 times the warming potential of CO2, will escape into both groundwater and the atmosphere, turning tap water flammable and pushing climate change to dangerous new levels.

The natural gas industry vigorously disputes environmentalists’ claims, but opponents to fracking have nonetheless gained political traction. Esteemed NASA climatologist James Hansen and founder Bill McKibben have both voiced alarm over fracking; so have Yoko Ono, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and even Pope Francis. With fracking’s detractors and supporters making equally strident demands, scientists, politicians, and Americans everywhere now face a dilemma neatly summarized by journalist Alex Prudhomme: “Is hydrofracking good or bad?”

[caption id="attachment_742" align="alignleft" width="296"]map_fracking Illinois Shale Basin, USGS[/caption]

Elected leaders in Texas, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania have grappled with this question for years, but until recently, their counterparts in Illinois demurred. Though Illinois sits atop a sizeable stash of hydrocarbons—the Illinois Shale Basin, a jagged oval of rock containing an estimated 4.65 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and twenty-four million barrels of oil—the lack of clear oil and gas regulations in the Land of Lincoln kept energy companies away. This changed on June 17, 2013, when the Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Regulatory Act (IHFRA), hailed as the nation’s strictest set of fracking regulations, became law.

A product of what The Chicago Tribune called “weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations between legislators, the attorney general’s office environmental groups and lobbyists for the oil and gas industry,” IHFRA promised a comprehensive set of regulations governing the extraction, storage, transportation, and legal status of natural gas in the state of Illinois. As Governor Pat Quinn signed the bill, he explained that “it’s about jobs, and it’s about ensuring that our natural resources are protected for future generations. I applaud the many environmental advocates and representatives from government, labor, and industry who worked with us to make Illinois a national model for transparency, environmental safety, and economic development.”

Five months later, when those “representatives from government, labor, and industry” fleshed out IHFRA with a detailed set of regulations, a first glance made it easy to agree with Governor Quinn. If Marathon Oil sought to replicate its Karnes County well in Illinois, it would have to follow much stricter rules along the way. It would have to disclose every ingredient in its “fracking fluid,” store it in sealed tanks rather than exposed pits, and either recycle it or inject it deep underground; it would have to comply with a strict set of well construction standards; it would be presumed liable for any contamination of groundwater nearby; it could not drill a well within 500 feet of a house, school, or church. After Marathon Oil complied with these and many other regulations, the State of Illinois would still guarantee any adversely affected citizen’s right to sue. Armed with such strict protections, IHFRA appeared ready to contain the worst excesses of fracking.

Ann Alexander thought otherwise. Mere hours after the release of IHFRA’s proposed regulations, the Senior Attorney for the National Resource Defense Council published a blog post entitled “Illinois’ Draft Fracking Regulations: Haste Makes Waste.” In its eagerness to establish a framework for fracking, she argued, the Illinois General Assembly had left with several loopholes. Open-air storage pits could still be used in poorly defined “emergency” circumstances, opening the door for overuse. To obtain the components of fracking fluid, health professionals would need to contact companies during “normal business hours,” even in life-threatening situations. Listing several other technicalities and weaknesses, Alexander likened the rules to a “term paper thrown together in an end-of-semester all-nighter.” A damning indictment, considering that Alexander’s employer had had a key hand in drafting those rules.

Before long, a full-fledged protest movement had emerged. IHFRA’s opponents not only cried foul at its loopholes and weaknesses, but also at the prospect that fracking, with all its attendant risks, would soon transform their state beyond recognition. Drawing on these concerns in the Illinois State Capitol, family physician Dr. Lora Chamberlain warned demonstrators that Illinois could soon face the staggering scale of fracking operations elsewhere. Holding up a map dotted with 3,000 wells in a 50-by-100-mile slice of North Dakota, she asserted that “This level of drilling is incompatible with safe living.”

Yet amid these protests, the economic case for fracking in Illinois remained just as compelling as in North Dakota. Brad Richards, a spokesman for the Illinois Oil and Gas Association, notes that energy companies have already invested $200 million in the state, and that “there’s a lot of guys who have had big checks left on the kitchen table” by fracking firms—both welcome developments for a state with a 13.7% poverty rate and the nation’s lowest credit rating.  As we shall see, Chamberlain and her allies doubt that fracking can truly alleviate their state’s economic woes. However, she and Mr. Richards may find common ground on one fact: In a few short months, Illinois had gone from uncharted territory for fracking to a microcosm of America’s tortured debate over this issue.

From the shores of Lake Michigan to the banks of the Ohio River, this debate has pulled in a colorful cast of characters. As IHFRA’s far-reaching implications became clear, it not only galvanized the Chicago-based Chamberlain, but also a college student from California, an energy executive from Kansas, and a county commissioner/prison warden/rock band member from Southern Illinois itself. Through interviews conducted by my fellow Gate correspondent Elaine Yao and myself, we investigated their stories for this series, and found an array of responses to the reality of massive energy sources beneath our feet. These attitudes towards fracking will soon make themselves felt in utility bills, local governments, and ecosystems across Illinois—and America.

The featured photo at the top of this article was taken by professional photographer, Daniel Foster. The original image, "Fracking Well Site,"  is published on his photography website, PIXSY.

Cracks in the Basin - Part 1: Illinois: A “National Model”? is the first chapter in a longer series by Gate staff writers, Patrick Reilly and Elaine Yao.

Table of Contents: Cracks in the Basin

Part 1: Illinois: A “National Model”?

Part 2: Big Greens, Little Greens, and a Fractured Opposition

Part 3: “The Whole County is Fracked”

Part 4: Epilogue: “Literally divided now”

Patrick Reilly


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