While touted as a compromise by local media, proposed fracking regulations being considered by Illinois lawmakers aren’t being accepted by community members who long have called for a moratorium and science-based environmental study on the impacts of the industry.
The law being considered in the House — HB 265 — does put some safeguards in place, mandating that oil companies hold back on drilling until a permit by the state’s Oil and Gas Commission is approved.
Yet the new piece of legislation also strips local governments of their control to regulate or locally ban the industry, and also gives the industry protection from disclosing chemicals used in the process. For community members, that’s not a compromise — it’s a win for the oil industry.
In response to the House’s consideration, community members concerned about fracking last week stormed the state capitol, unfolding a large banner that succinctly illustrated their stance: “Don’t Frack.”
Many remember the state of the land in the late 1990s, when more than 4,000 uncapped oil wells dotted the state, creating spills that left once-fertile land unfarmable.
The newest bill is seen by concerned residents as a method of appeasement in the face of planned fracking execution. Fracking is already legal in the state, and residents have witnessed the devastation firsthand. Now, oil and gas companies have shown their commitment to expanding production, having already sealed the deal on mineral rights in the south and central portions of the state.
At greatest risk is the southern portion of the state, which sits atop the 60,000-square-mile Albany Shale formation, below the state’s treasured scenery of Johnson and Pope counties.
Erasing memories of the oil industry’s footprint
The fight to kickstart the fracking industry has gained new momentum, yet drilling for oil in the past has left memories in the minds of farmers who watched once-fertile land destroyed.
In 1997, an Associated Press report detailed the destruction in White County, Ill., stating that the state was home to 4,000 abandoned oil wells at that time.
At that point, the state was dealing with the problems of capping the wells — an issue that cost the state money from its taxpayer-funded coffers. Yet not even the $500,000 budget allocated to do so was enough to handle the remnants the industry left behind.
According to the report, fracking then used the same formula of water, salt and chemicals to frack the land and extract oil.
“Most oil producers take the leftover salt water from their wells and pump it back into the ground to put pressure on the remaining oil, making it easier to pump out the well,” Associated Press reporter Matt Kelley wrote in 1997. “But pressurizing the underground system also can force oil and salt water out of abandoned wells that tap the same system.”
For those who remember this dark time in their state’s history, trusting the oil companies again to carry out an ethical, safe method of fracking is tough to swallow, which is why regulations without scientific study and with safeguards that allow oil companies to not disclose chemicals used in the process are being met with criticism from residents.
And as far as regulations go, farmers like Laird Dart, who was interviewed by Kelley in 1997, don’t trust the government, based on their past experiences.
“There’s rules and regulations that’s supposed to keep this from happening,” Dart said at the time.
During that interview, Dart described the land contaminated near an abandoned well site, saying, “This is all sterile. Nothing will grow here. You can’t keep it from washing away.”
The past reminds community members that legislation needs to be sure to hold oil companies accountable, especially in the midst of a boom-and-bust industry that’s certain to not last forever.
There are some whose minds had not been changed, though. Brad Richards is the executive director of the Illinois Oil and Gas Industry — and was he in 1997. His stance then and now is total support for the industry. Richards has remained in support of fracking, and most recently stated his support for the new House Bill on fracking regulations.
During 1997, Illinois oil production was at 12 million barrels a year — down from the 80 million annual barrels extracted in the decade spanning the mid-1950s and mid-1960s. Now, roughly 12 million barrels are drilled each year, with a promise for more as oil companies expand drilling.
Calling for a moratorium
As oil companies buy up swaths of land in the state’s southern half, environmentalists are calling for an all-out moratorium and a science-based investigative task force to determine the industry’s threat to the environment, groundwater and drinking water supplies, while also debunking the pitch that it will be good for the local economy.
“It’s ridiculous that our lawmakers see hydraulic fracturing as an opportunity for our state,” Angie Viands of Rising Tide Chicago said in a press release. “Out-of-state corporations will be making most of the money while residents and our climate will be suffering from this polluting industry.”
Viands and others instead support HB 2066, a bill that calls for a two-year moratorium on fracking in the state, while also mandating a thorough independent study on the impacts of fracking.
In support of its cause, a petition has been created at MoveOn.org, calling on state legislatures to side with those living in Illinois’ rural areas.
“Fracking threatens the health of central and southern Illinoisans, and their water, land, air, livestock, wildlife, national forests and important industries such as tourism and farming,” the petition states. “The health of the workers at the rig sites is threatened by the chemicals and silica used in the fracking process.”
The petition goes a step beyond residents’ concern over water contamination and frack fluid spills, as recently seen in Pennsylvania, and also calls for the state to take a sustainable direction in the energy debate.
“The road to our energy independence is not lined with the drilling rigs,” the petition states. “Instead it is lined with windmills and solar arrays. Fracking is a dangerous distraction from the green energy future that we deserve and that we must fund and build.”