The controversial drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing could be coming to Southern Illinois as soon as next month. The energy industry says that’s good news for people living above the natural gas deposits, millions of dollars have already been spent leasing mineral and land rights. But as Rachel Otwell reports, some residents say the drilling could jeopardize their health.
Liz Patula is not convinced the paychecks being collected by locals are worth the consequences of hydraulic fracturing … or “fracking.” Patula founded the group S.A.F.E. which stands for Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment. She says in states like Pennsylvania, where fracking has taken off, locals have complained about ill effects.
PATULA: “We’re getting some really serious evidence both in terms of empirical evidence and testimonies from farmers and residents, and we’re just deeply scared for our region. Part of the problem is residents in our region still probably don’t know about this. We understand that the companies have tended to say, you know there’s no problem and everything, but the evidence simply does not support that.”
Fracking involves drilling horizontally and cracking underground rock. Millions of gallons of water, chemicals and sand are pumped in, and eventually oil or gas is taken out. Groups like Patula’s cite reports that claim the process contaminates water, destroys farm land, pumps harmful chemicals into the earth, and even causes earthquakes. Several drilling companies have moved into Southern Illinois in hopes of extracting natural gas. And they’re buying up mineral rights and surface land leases.
RICHARDS: “I caution people this is not an oil boom, it’s a leasing boom. In places like Wayne, Hamilton, and Saline counties, there have been tens of millions, perhaps even a hundred million or more spent to acquire these leases.”
That’s Brad Richards, the vice president of the Illinois Oil and Gas Association. He says until the companies test fracking, they don’t even know how valuable the practice will be in Southern Illinois, where a vast mineral deposit called the New Albany shale lies far underground.
RICHARDS: “That in and of itself it is a very big deal, there are landowners in Southern Illinois, who are getting very large checks. But the real payoff will be, in terms of economic development, if they drill wells and are successful in producing hydrocarbons, then it could be a huge, huge economic development opportunity for Southern Illinois.”
Laura Harmon, with the Illinois Farm Bureau, says farmers should be wary of contracts to lease their land rights and should consult attorneys before signing contracts. She says property values could drop if drillers move onto their land.
HARMON: “You need to determine how much land is going to be taken out of production, and that would generally warrant a separate payment just for that. Another thing you would want to look at is location of a well, you want to make sure it’s not too close to buildings on your property, certainly wouldn’t want it next to your house.”
Regulations for fracking have yet to pass in Illinois, and there are no federal safeguards or limits. Senator Mike Frerichs, a Democrat from Champaign, is sponsoring a measure that would regulate the practice.
FRERICHS: “Last year when I introduced the bill the industry said we’re not even doing it in Illinois, there’s no need to push this. But today it’s clear, companies are going out and they’re acquiring mineral rights, and there’s at least one company that’s scheduled to start drilling in May, so I think something has to happen this year.”
The measure would require drilling companies to provide detailed information about where they are operating and how much fluid they are using. It would also require the companies to disclose information about the chemicals they use. Water wells would also have to meet certain standards. Jacquelyn Pless covers energy legislation around the country for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
PLESS: “There are at least 137 bills across 24 states that have been introduced so far this legislative session that specifically address hydraulic fracturing, and the most frequently addressed trend this session so far is to require disclosure of fracking fluid chemical additives.”
As oil and gas companies advance on Southern Illinois, pressure is building to regulate fracking. Another proposal would outlaw the practice in state parks. For now, groups like Patula’s say they will keep questioning the harmful effects of fracking, and fighting to keep it off their land.