Bans, Moratoria, and Safe Development

Here in Illinois we’ve been developing oil and natural gas for more than a hundred years, and we’ve been using proven well completion procedures like hydraulic fracturing for decades. And our track record is pretty good, too: hydraulic fracturing has been used tens of thousands of times in our state, and not a single proven case of water contamination from the process.

How have we been able to achieve this? It’s a couple of things really. First and foremost are high industry standards and a commitment to safety that is dynamic rather than static. As technologies evolve and improve, the industry is always on the cutting edge. We all know that more efficient development means more affordable development, which ultimately means lower energy prices for consumers.

Equally important is a strong but fair regulatory regime. In Illinois, oil and gas development has been tightly regulated by the state since 1939. The Division of Oil & Gas (part of the Department of Natural Resources) conducts tens of thousands of inspections every year, helping to ensure the public that oil and natural gas production is done safely and responsibly. The laws currently governing oil and natural gas development in Illinois can be found at the bottom of this page.

The combination of high industry standards and strong state regulation has facilitated safe development in Illinois, and there’s simply no evidence to suggest it won’t continue to do so.

But to hear it from some opponents, including our friends at Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment (SAFE), the only way to achieve “safety” is to ban hydraulic fracturing, or at the very least impose a moratorium until “further study” can be completed.

First of all, let’s just recognize reality. Both a moratorium and an outright ban are different means toward the same end; namely, an indefinite halt to domestic oil and gas development. We know this because the same groups who have stated they support a ban on the process of developing these resources also throw their weight behind moratoria, a clever ruse to make them appear as if they’re merely interested in additional research on the subject.

Need proof? Food & Water Watch is a national group that has been moving into states to try to ban hydraulic fracturing. Here’s a petition from F&WW calling for a moratorium “until it is proven safe for our environment and the public’s health.” But F&WW also proclaims on its website that hydraulic fracturing is “inherently unsafe” and that no amount of regulation will ever be enough. How less sincere could an organization possibly get?

Here in Illinois, let’s take a look at SAFE’s own website. In one call-to-action, the organization publicly calls for a moratorium “until research reveals that our air, water and soil can be protected from deadly toxins” (we’ll examine the enormous amount of research showing exactly that later in this post). But then take a look at SAFE’s own Mission Statement, which states: “Our mission is to ban fracking in Southern Illinois, most urgently horizontal fracking, until such a time as any extraction method presents no risk to our land, air, or water.”

One could argue that both of these positions just reflect a need for more research to be completed, notwithstanding the fact that hydraulic fracturing has been safely deployed more than 1.2 million times, across more than two dozen states, over a span of more than 65 years. But when a group’s mission is to ban a process it deems “arguably the most environmentally destructive and health-threatening technology,” does anyone really believe that hard evidence will sway them from their ideological predisposition?

Moreover, a petition from SAFE calling for a ban on hydraulic fracturing says that “the procedure itself is inherently unpredictable and dangerous; hence, regulations are not going to be able to ‘control’ an inherently unpredictable process.”

Again, groups like SAFE are not calling for a rational discussion of proper regulation. They’re looking for any avenue possible to ban hydraulic fracturing, even if it means claiming publicly that their goals are something more benign than their true intent.

Here are just a few examples of what experts and regulators (both at the state and federal level) have said about hydraulic fracturing:

  • Lisa Jackson, current EPA Administrator: “In no case have we made a definitive determination that [hydraulic fracturing] has caused chemicals to enter groundwater.” (April 2012)
    • Jackson: “I’m not aware of any proven case where [hydraulic fracturing] itself has affected water.” (May 2011)
  • U.S. EPA: “EPA did not find confirmed evidence that drinking water wells have been contaminated by hydraulic fracturing fluid injection…” (2004)
  • Carol Browner, former EPA Administrator: “There is no evidence that the hydraulic fracturing at issue has resulted in any contamination or endangerment of underground sources of drinking water.” (May 1995)
  • U.S. Dept. of Energy and Ground Water Protection Council: “[B]ased on over sixty years of practical application and a lack of evidence to the contrary, there is nothing to indicate that when coupled with appropriate well construction; the practice of hydraulic fracturing in deep formations endangers ground water. There is also a lack of demonstrated evidence that hydraulic fracturing conducted in many shallower formations presents a substantial risk of endangerment to ground water.” (May 2009)
  • CardnoEntrix (Inglewood Oil Field Study): “Before-and-after monitoring of groundwater quality in monitor wells did not show impacts from high-volume hydraulic fracturing and high-rate gravel packing.” (October 2012)
  • Center for Rural Pennsylvania: “[S]tatistical analyses of post-drilling versus pre-drilling water chemistry did not suggest major influences from gas well drilling or hydrofracturing (fracking) on nearby water wells…” (Oct. 2011)
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology: “[T]here is substantial vertical separation between the freshwater aquifers and the fracture zones in the major shale plays. The shallow layers are protected from injected fluid by a number of layers of casing and cement — and as a practical matter fracturing operations cannot proceed if these layers of protection are not fully functional.” (2010)
  • John Hanger, Former Pa. DEP Secretary: “We’ve never had one case of fracking fluid going down the gas well and coming back up and contaminating someone’s water well.” (2012)
  • Dr. Stephen Holditch, Department of Petroleum Engineering, Texas A&M University: “I have been working in hydraulic fracturing for 40+ years and there is absolutely no evidence hydraulic fractures can grow from miles below the surface to the fresh water aquifers.” (October 2011)
  • Dr. Mark Zoback, Professor of Geophysics, Stanford University: “Fracturing fluids have not contaminated any water supply and with that much distance to an aquifer, it is very unlikely they could.” (August 2011)

State regulators from nearly a dozen states have also affirmed that hydraulic fracturing does not pose a risk to groundwater.

Air quality studies in southwestern Pennsylvania, northeastern Pennsylvania, and north Texasall conducted by state regulatory agencies – have shown that emissions from shale development do not reach levels that would be hazardous to public health. Other independent experts have validated those findings.

And earthquakes? Here’s what U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist Bill Ellsworth said: “We don’t see any connection between [hydraulic fracturing] and earthquakes of any concern to society.” The National Academies of Science agrees.

Interestingly, the claim from opponents that “we need more study” actually makes sense. If you oppose a process that experts from across the board have determined to be safe, then you’re going to need to manufacture “more studies” to claim the opposite.

And that’s exactly what they have done, issuing “reports” that purport to show negative health impacts and water contamination. The level of inaccuracy in thesereports” is astounding, albeit not unsurprising. SAFE even continues to screen the movie Split Estate for public audiences as a way of suggesting hydraulic fracturing is going to ruin the environment, even though the claims made in the movie were thoroughly and definitively debunked several years ago.

Given the paucity of proof from opponents, we’re left with essentially two options in Illinois.

The first is to ignore credible science (and a consensus of regulatory opinions) and impose a moratorium or even a ban on hydraulic fracturing. At its core, this is a political statement, not a judgment rendered from a careful review of real world evidence.

The second, more responsible option is to encourage exploration and development, all while continuing to maintain strong regulatory oversight. Keeping oil and gas development tightly regulated – along with high operating standards in the industry – will allow us to reap economic benefits (jobs, tax revenue, etc.) safely and responsibly.

Illinois is broke. Our unemployment rate is a full percentage point above the national average, which, last time we checked, was pretty high itself. The economy in southern Illinois is in desperate need of a boost that provides more public revenue, more jobs, and frankly more hope for the future. Responsible oil and gas development could address all of these issues, as it continues to do in other states all across the country.

But if we let opponents impose their ideologically-crafted bans and moratoria, we’re only pushing ourselves deeper into debt and unemployment – based on shoddy evidence and non-existent science.

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