Start of Fracking Divides the Illinois Environmental Community

by Suhail Barot

At the end of the spring legislative session, by very large majorities, the Illinois House and Senate both passed a bill allowing and regulating the practice of “fracking” – the extraction of natural gas from a well by use of hydraulic fracturing. Though the Governor has just signed the bill this week, thus indicating broad agreement among IL politicians about the practice, the new regulations have sharply divided the environmental community.

Fracking diagramThe bill was drafted by a group composed of environmentalists, the oil and gas industry, state regulators, and others. Within this, the environmental community was represented by the Sierra Club, the NRDC, Faith in Place, and the Environmental Law and Policy Center. While none of the groups are supportive of fracking, their participation has meant that the bill has the strongest set of regulations on fracking proposed in any state. Protections within the bill include restrictions on storage and disposal of fracking waste water, well casing requirements, regulations on natural gas flaring to prevent air pollution, and requirements for before-and-after groundwater testing, with a presumption of liability on the well operator if any contamination is discovered.

The leadership of many statewide environmental groups have based their support because of the following reasons:

  • Up to now, there effectively have been no regulations on fracking in Illinois. Examples for Pennsylvania and Ohio have shown us the potential harm from unregulated fracking.
  • The oil and gas industry has already begun to frack in Illinois and is sitting on hundreds of thousands of acres of leases on which they can legally begin to drill without any restrictions.
  • More broadly, natural gas is often viewed as a less destructive alternative to coal. The increased availability of natural gas has driven the use of coal to 1995 levels, and correspondingly reduced US carbon emissions its lowest levels since 1994.

However, many grass-roots groups, especially in Southern Illinois, have viewed this work as a betrayal. In their opinion, working with industry to formulate regulations undercut the basis for a moratorium, such as that the one that currently holds in New York State. Additionally, they were infuriated by the closed-door negotiations involved in formulating the final legislation. On this issue, significant mistrust also exists between mainstream environmental groups and activists, because of a decision by the Sierra Club to take $26 million in funding from the natural gas industry from 2007-2010, to fund their anti-coal work.

Supporters of a moratorium did bring a late breaking bill (Senate Bill 630) to the floor, but it was not called for a final vote, after a final count showed it to be three votes shy of passing. Many of them, led by individuals like Dr. Sandra Steingraber, plan a long-term campaign to overturn the result and abolish fracking.

The political landscape in Illinois is somewhat different from New York, though. While both states are dominated by their flagship cities (and suburbs), Chicago and its collar counties are less liberal than New York City. This makes politicians with state-wide ambitions much less willing to alienate the downstate areas where fracking is expected to take place, and who are eagerly anticipating the economic activity and taxes expected once it begins.

Additionally, New York City is dependent on water from the upstate Catskill mountains, making its population much more cautious about possible water contamination from fracking. Meanwhile, the situation is reversed in Illinois, where it remains difficult for politicians and environmentalists from the Chicago area to raise concerns about possible downstate contamination which is not expected to affect their constituencies.

In his press conference after signing the bill, as reported by the Chicago Tribune on 17 June 2013, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn stated:

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.

As we know, however, the real story behind the genesis of this new policy is much more complicated.

BarotSuhail Barot is a Visiting Instructor of Sustainability Studies at Roosevelt University with expertise in energy, waste, recycling, and environmental policy.

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