Breaking Down The New Proposed Fracking Rules Released In Illinois And California

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The states of California and Illinois both released proposed rules for fracking on Friday, which received general criticism from environmental groups and measured acceptance from the oil and gas industry.

Governors Jerry Brown (D-CA) and Pat Quinn (D-IL) each signed legislation regulating hydraulic fracturing earlier this year. Along with the practice of horizontal drilling, fracking allows oil and gas companies to get at fossil fuels heretofore trapped in shale formations by injecting high-pressure water and chemicals miles deep into the ground and collecting what comes back up. As Wenonah Hauter of Food and Water Watch once described it, it is “like setting off a giant pipe bomb four or five miles underground,” burning the oil and gas that comes back up — and somehow disposing of the water, sand, and chemicals used to fracture the shale rock in the first place.

This practice is fascinating from a technological perspective, and has played a large role in the fact that in October, the U.S. exported more oil than it imported for the first time since 1995, Yet it has been extremely controversial, with top climate scientists sending a letter to Governor Brown to issue a fracking moratorium because of the carbon emissions, the groundwater contamination, and the massive amount of water required to frack a well. The California law says that the state must conduct a scientific study of the benefits and the drawbacks of fracking before a ban on the practice could be considered.

Neither California nor Illinois had regulations on fracking before this law was enacted, which is true for most states across the United States. North Carolina, Maryland, and New York have issued effective moratoria on fracking in their states — California and Illinois are the first states to allow the practice to continue in their states but regulate it to any serious degree.

California had around 50,000 operating wells in 2012, and just 560 of them used fracking. In California, the oil and gas industry is trying to get at 15.4 billion barrels of oil in the Monterey Shale formation. This is five times as large as the Bakken Shale formation in North Dakota. It’s huge. But it’s very hard to get at because the rocks are more mixed than North Dakota’s shale deposits, and this makes it risky and expensive.

Oil and gas companies in Illinois are looking at the Illinois Basin’s New Albany Shale formation. A study in 2002 suggested that the whole shale play across several states could have up to 300 billion barrels of oil, though a small percentage of that would likely be recoverable.

The rules both largely address water usage and pollution. The Illinois law required the water that comes back up from fracked wells to be held in tanks instead of open pits — except in case of emergencies. But the rules allow enough leeway in how companies can define that emergency that it could function as a “gaping loophole” that makes open pit wastewater storage a regular practice, according to NRDC’s Senior Attorney Ann Alexander. The rules also require companies to test water before, during, and after drilling, while companies will be liable for any contamination that takes place due to drilling. Drillers must disclose chemicals used in the practice both before and after drilling, as well as how the well will be drilled, how much fluid will be used and at what pressure, and how water will be obtained, used, and disposed.

The California rules require monitoring of well water before and after companies drill, which would be managed by the Department of Conservation, the Air Resources Board, and regional water boards. The rules also mandate that names and concentrations of the chemicals used in fracking be made public. These chemicals are used to lubricate the process, kill bacteria, and facilitate the grains of sand into the fractures in the shale rock. Fracking chemicals are exempt from federal water disclosure laws following passage of the 2005 Energy law.

Oil and gas companies in Illinois are concerned about how it is possible that people from outside the state could request public hearings on fracking permit applications. Still, the industry has been largely positive about the proposed rules, while environmental groups have been concerned about water issues and other loopholes, mostly advocating for moratoria while these issues can be resolved.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources will seek public feedback on the proposed rules until Jan. 3, and has scheduled public hearings in Chicago on Nov. 26 and in Ina on Dec. 3. In California, a 60-day public comment period started on Friday, and the state will hold public hearings in January in Sacramento, Long Beach, Bakersfield, Salinas and Santa Maria.