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After years of debate and study, horizontal hydraulic fracturing, the controversial oil and natural gas drilling method more commonly known as fracking, is expected to begin in southern Illinois this year.
While it’s often said the devil is in the details, it might be more accurate in this case to say the monster will be in the mitigation—including the precautions taken by companies to avoid mishaps and the state’s vigilance in enforcing its own strict set of ground rules, according to NIU experts.
The practice of fracking in the United States has grown rapidly over the past decade, helping the country become more energy independent. And Illinois officials hope it can give a shot in the arm to the state’s struggling economy. Indeed, a 2012 study found fracking could have a billion-dollar economic impact on the state, while more recently the Chicago Tribune reported that energy firms have already invested millions to lease Illinois land.
But in the Land of Lincoln and elsewhere, not all are convinced fracking is worth the risk to people’s health and the environment. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo banned the drilling process in his state over health-risk concerns. Some entire countries, including France, have bans or moratoriums.
What exactly is fracking?
Pollyea says fracking has proliferated as a result of new drilling technologies, which make Illinois a more viable target for energy companies.
The state’s geology is comprised primarily of sedimentary rocks such as limestone, sandstone and shale that formed in ancient oceanic environments. Shale is an excellent source rock for oil and gas formation because it is rich in organic material, but its permeability is very low. With the traditional drilling methods of the past, tapping into these formations would have produced little oil or natural gas.
Pollyea says fracking involves drilling vertically into a deposit of shale, and then steering the borehole horizontally into the target formation. Next a well casing is installed and perforated, and a highly pressurized stream of water, proprietary chemicals and sand is injected into the boreholes to create fractures within the shale and increase its permeability. Sand is deposited within the fractures to keep them open, allowing oil or natural gas to escape to the well head. Several horizontal wells can be completed within a single vertical borehole, either in different radial directions or in target formations at different depths.
“The real technological advance has been horizontal drilling,” says Pollyea, who teaches on the topic in an introductory geology course and whose research investigates reservoir mechanics, including hydraulic fracturing.
“Many shale beds are fairly narrow, so a vertical well will only capture the thickness of the reservoir. Drilling horizontally allows access to a much larger proportion of the oil- or gas-bearing formation.”
Pollyea cites several safety aspects of paramount importance. To avoid leakage of fracking chemicals into groundwater, well casings must be tested and monitored for structural integrity. Also, the high salinity fluids produced in the process are potentially hazardous to terrestrial ecosystems and must be properly handled and disposed of.
One recent study found a link between fracking and earthquakes in Ohio. But Pollyea says there is a dearth of scientific data for predicting such events.
“Induced seismicity is part of the risk profile for hydraulic fracturing. However, much of this risk has to do with the presence and geometry of pre-existing faults that could be reactivated during the process. Unfortunately, much of this information may not be knowable at the depths which hydraulic fracturing occurs,” Pollyea says. “So we have to weigh the risks against potential economic benefits and the geopolitics of it all. With such a complex picture, I think it’s dangerous to have a black-and-white answer. I think we have to look at it as a risk-adjusted proposition.”
Nation’s ‘strictest guidelines’
Geology professor Melissa Lenczewski, who serves as director of the NIU Institute for the Study of Environment, Sustainability and Energy, says she believes Illinois lawmakers did their homework. They looked at issues in states where fracking is ongoing and crafted laws that aim to prevent problems that have arisen elsewhere.
“Overall, the laws written for the State of Illinois are very progressive,” says Lenczewski, whose students in her class on the “energy-water nexus” have studied and debated the legislation. “Illinois will have the strictest guidelines in the country.”
For example, she says, every well in Illinois will need a permit ensuring that it is properly installed. Testing of water quality near wells will be done before and after fracking operations. Regulations also require sealing of wells and restoration of well locations, so “companies can't just walk away after they get the gas out,” Lenczewski says.
“There’s about 150 pages of regulations, including some related to the disclosure of chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process,” she adds. “While a company can have trade secrets, there are mechanisms in place for health professionals to know what the chemicals are in the event of a spill or contamination.”
Yet, while Lenczewski says she recognizes the economic advantages to fracking and thinks the state has crafted responsible legislation, she’s not in favor of introducing the drilling method in Illinois.
“From the standpoint of an environmentalist, I don’t think widespread use of fracking is a good idea,” she says. “We should be moving away from carbon-based fuels to renewable energy. And fracking makes moving toward renewables less likely. Cheap oil and natural gas keeps us dependent on carbon-based energy.”
Lenczewski also has concerns over another precious resource intrinsically tied to fracking. She says fracking uses up huge quantities of freshwater, both during drilling operations and for cleanup. “Each well will use about 2 million to 8 million gallons of water,” she says. “To put that into context, the City of DeKalb pumps out of the ground 3.32 million gallon per day on average.
“In the southern part of state, they don’t have a lot of water available,” she adds. “So they’re using limited resources to make cheap natural gas and oil. Once water goes into wells to frack, it can’t be used for drinking water later on.”
Air quality concerns
Environmentalists also have serious and legitimate concerns over air quality in and around fracking sites, says William Mills, an assistant professor in NIU’s College of Engineering and Engineering Technology.
“I’m not coming out for or against fracking, but it’s very clear there could be unintended consequences,” Mills says. He teaches engineering technology courses in environmental health and safety and previously worked as a safety consultant.
Mills identifies four primary areas of air-quality concerns associated with fracking:
- Particulate-matter emissions. This includes both diesel exhaust particulates associated with fracking operations and sand particulates. Sand used in fracking is very fine and has a high content of crystalline silica, a known carcinogen that also causes silicosis, a debilitating lung disease. “Airborne silica is a potential issue for both workers and the environment, particularly near areas where it is quarried,” Mills says.
- Volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are organic chemicals that evaporate quickly into the atmosphere (think of gasoline vapor or an alcohol swab at the doctor’s office). Mills says oil and gas production emits VOCs, which can cause health problems, odors issues and explosion risks. VOCs also undergo complex reactions under sunlight that can lead to ozone formation.
- Nitrogen oxides. These highly reactive greenhouse gasses, produced from internal combustion engines and flaring activities associated with fracking operations, can cause air pollution, as well as adverse respiratory effects in people.
- Other greenhouse gases. These include flammable methane gas, the main constituent of natural gas and a potent greenhouse gas. “Recent research has indicated that only a small fraction of oil and natural gas wells may be responsible for the majority of methane emissions,” Mills says. “However, you cannot determine which ones these will be without appropriate monitoring.”
While air quality and safety near fracking wells is a concern for the public, it’s an immediate concern for workers, Mills says. Companies can mitigate risks with proper pollution controls, monitoring and testing equipment.
In response to these concerns, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have been more closely studying potential health risks associated with fracking and stepping up efforts to curb harmful air pollution, Mills says, adding that companies can’t be allowed to cut corners on fracking operations.
“The only way to do it,” he says, “is to do it right.”