Wake-up call: new evidence that fracking is already happening in Illinois

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.

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