A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Go slow: Fracking requires caution, balance

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Jan. 17, 18 or 19

When the movie “Promised Land” was released this month, one was tempted to repeat the tagline from 1972’s horror flick “The Last House on the Left”: “Keep repeating ‘It’s only a movie... It’s only a movie’...”

But it’s worse.

People on both sides of the fracking debate cringe at “Promised Land,” the Matt Damon drama about fracking advocates trying to get a depressed rural area to sign over drilling rights. Fracking supporters say the film’s unfair; fracking opponents say it doesn’t go far enough.

Maybe it’s no wonder that Illinois’ legislature seems stymied.

However, if doing nothing avoids disaster, that’s good.

Unlike other states that rushed to comply with industry, Illinois has time. Fracking hasn’t actually started here, despite thousands of leases signed in downstate’s New Albany shale formation, which extends through Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee.

“We should not start fracking in this state until tight regulations are in place that protect our communities, resources and economy,” says Josh Mogerman, a spokesman with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), “and we should take the time to ensure those regs avoid the mistakes of our neighbors.”

Fracking is the practice of drilling thousands of feet into rock, fracturing ancient formations, and injecting huge amounts of water, sand and undisclosed chemicals at high pressure to crack open pockets of oil and natural gas trapped there. One well reportedly needs up to 7 million gallons of water, plus 400,000 gallons of additives, from lubricants to solvents. Boron, chromium and other hazardous chemicals may be used, and, as the journal Nature reported, researchers found that methane leaks resulting from the process pose problems, too.

In Springfield, Senate Bill 3280, a measure of baby steps to begin to regulate fracking, passed in April, but when it moved to the House it was amended to essentially delay fracking until more is known.

“Standards and sound regulations do not cost jobs,” says Henry Henderson, Midwest NRDC Director. “They protect the economy, spur innovation and create manufacturing jobs. A nascent industry under significant public scrutiny, like fracking, cannot move forward if it is plagued by water and air contamination, as well as destruction of resources, property and communities.”

Still, Illinois’ Chamber of Commerce recently issued a glowing analysis, claiming that fracking could mean up to 47,000 new jobs in Illinois and generate $10 billion.

“The ‘comprehensive look’ is, by its own description, narrow and divorced from any really meaningful context,” Henderson said. “The report assumes that shale gas drilling will occur in an accident-free world, without environmental impacts of any kind. That simply has not been the case in any of the other states.”

In fact, the 28-page report concedes that fracking is “unproven” and notes that the analysis “does not include,” among other things, “the effect of land leases and royalty payments; the potential impacts on other forms of energy such as coal, oil or electricity; the economic costs of any pass-through rates, regulations or taxes that producers or customers could be required to pay; any environmental impacts, costs or benefits,” much less the kind of jobs they envision.

“Members of the public are generally very poorly informed,” said Illinois Geologic Survey Director Don McKay, who’s cautious.

“The porosity of the [New Albany] shale is below the threshold of shale in Marcellus [the Pennsylvania/New York formation being drilled]. Marcellus is about 3% porous; ours is more like 1%. Another aspect is that the shale here was deposited in a marine setting, which means it was not buried as deeply, or ‘cooked’ at such depth, so there’s not as much gas created.”

Since a compromise agreeable to all parties seems unlikely, a more sensible approach is to go slow but sure. After all, elsewhere, promised jobs didn’t materialize in Ohio (according to Republican Gov. John Kasich), ground water in Colorado was contaminated, and 100 aquifers in Pennsylvania have been polluted. Even small earthquakes have been tied to fracking.

Besides risks to the environment, fracking can pose dangers to the public health, is shrouded in secrecy, has little enforcement where it operates, and could threaten livestock and crops. Health consequences range from headaches and blisters to rashes and tumors; industry test results are kept confidential (some states where disclosure is required have seen little transparency – unsurprising since ExxonMobil drafted model legislation, according to Bloomberg News); regulation is inadequate (Wyoming has 12 inspectors for 55,000 gas wells); and agriculture may be jeopardized (the Environmental Protection Agency is studying the impact on water but not fracking’s effects on plants or animals – or the people who consume them).

The General Assembly must not get stampeded. Illinois needs a balance between environmental safety and economic development.

Meanwhile, instead of “Promised Land,” check out 2010’s Oscar-nominated documentary “Gasland.”

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