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In the face of the massive disruptions promised by global warming, and the current, ongoing environmental degradation associated with coal-fired power, many environmental advocates have found themselves supporting natural gas as a bridge to a clean energy future.
Among such advocates, count Brian Sauder, who is Central Illinois Outreach and Policy Coordinator for the statewide organization, “Faith in Place,” which seeks “to give religious people the tools to become good stewards of the earth.” Burning natural gas, he point outs, releases only half the carbon dioxide per unit of electricity that coal does, and it produces far less other pollution, too.
But even as Sauder and others at Faith in Place have favored natural gas over coal, they have some misgivings about that position. According to Sauder, “It’s more difficult to prefer gas as an alternative when you look at the wreckage that can be caused by the current method of extracting it.” If you’ve seen the film “Gasland,” or kept up with national reporting on the issue, you know what he means.
The extraction method Sauder refers to is high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking.” This method of extraction involves injecting a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals into deep layers of shale to break them up and release the gas they hold.
On the plus side, fracking allows energy companies access to vast stores of natural gas that would otherwise remain locked underground. On the minus side, it uses enormous quantities of water, it can contaminate groundwater if the fracking solution reaches an aquifer, and it leaves companies with large quantities of toxin-laden recovered fracking solution to dispose of.
High-pressure hydrofracking has not yet—and may never—come to Illinois, because the shale that underlies parts of the state holds less natural gas than the shale currently being tapped elsewhere. For now, it’s not economically viable. But a significant rise in the price of natural gas could change that.
Given the pollution problems that have arisen with fracking in other states, and the difficulty of addressing those problems after the fact, Sauder and others at Faith in Place sought help from State Senator Michael Frerichs to ensure that if it is done here, it is done safely.
Toward that end, Senator Frerichs has recently introduced a bill (SB 664) that requires oversight and regulation of fracking by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). Under the framework established by the bill, companies would be required to disclose the components of fracking solutions to IDNR, which would then make that information available to the public. The bill would also limit the use of certain hazardous chemicals, and require companies to report on the reuse and disposal of fracking solutions.
In a phone conversation about the bill, Senator Frerichs emphasized to me that it was not intended to deter development of Illinois’ natural gas resources. “The point,” he said, “is to ensure transparency and public access to information.”
Sauder and other advocates appreciate Frerichs’ leadership in safeguarding the public interest in the case of fracking. But their ultimate goal, he reminded me, is renewable energy, not just use of “cleaner” fossil fuels.