Thursday, March 14, 2013

A discussion of proposed fracking legislation with Brian Sauder of Faith in Place

A discussion of proposed fracking legislation with Brian Sauder of Faith in Place

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Say for the moment you own property in Illinois under which there’s oil or gas you could access using the process of high volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. What stands between you and the start of your fracking operation? A two-page application and a $100 fee, payable to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR).

A bill recently introduced in the Illinois House, HB 2615, would change that. The bill was crafted over the past eight months by a team of house members led by John Bradley, a Democrat from Carbondale, and including Naomi Jakobsson of Urbana. Also involved in the crafting of the bill were representatives of the oil and gas industry, as well as four statewide environmental groups.

According to those groups, the regulatory framework that would be established by the bill is stricter than that in any other state.

I spoke recently with Brian Sauder, who is a policy director with Faith in Place, a not-for-profit that organizes religious congregations on environmental issues, and one of the four environmental representatives who worked on the legislation. He called attention to some of the key protections offered by the bill.

First among these are protections for water and air. The house bill requires that all of the flowback from fracking be stored in closed tanks rather than open pits, which is the norm now in states without such regulations. This drastically reduces the risks of spills, overflows and floodwater contamination, as well as other issues associated with the open storage of water mixed with hazardous substances.

The bill also protects against the pollution of water sources by stipulating practices in the construction and maintenance of gas wells, and it establishes a monitoring regime to verify that wells perform properly. Under this regime, nearby water sources are sampled on a before and after basis. If new contamination is detected in post-fracking tests, the fracking company is presumed to be liable for it.

Sauder was also especially pleased with the bill’s provisions for public participation in the permitting process. It enables anyone who may be affected by a fracking operation to request a public hearing on a permit, and it stipulates that those are “contested case” hearings. In such hearings, parties are allowed to present evidence and cross-examine witnesses, and the proceedings are documented so they can be cited in legal appeals.

Sauder noted that much of the controversy around fracking elsewhere in the U.S. has arisen where oil and gas companies are able to keep secret what chemicals they are injecting into the ground in the process of fracking.

HB 2615 would require companies to disclose to IDNR a list of all substances used in fracking fluids, the formulas for those fluids and their processes. This material would then be subject to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. In such cases, the bill provides that IDNR determines which parts of this information are proprietary, not the operators, as is the case in other states.

Of course, there’s more to these regulations than I’ve presented here, from setback requirements that keep wells a certain distance from homes, schools and hospitals, to reclamation standards that establish conditions for sites after wells are taken out of operation.  Brian Sauder suggested that people who want to follow up start at the Website of Faith in Place, which is

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Studying tiny creatures to answer big questions

Studying tiny creatures to answer big questions

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For most people, I suspect, the word “Daphnia” brings to mind no clear picture. So let me describe them for you. Daphnia are a genus of tiny aquatic crustaceans. Like larger crustaceans you may be familiar with, such as shrimp, they have segmented legs and bodies protected by a rigid exoskeleton. But even the largest species of Daphnia grow no more than five millimeters long, and so could easily rest atop a pencil eraser.

Daphnia occupy a wide range of freshwater aquatic habitats, including the type of wetlands known as ephemeral ponds, which are pools that form during the wet part of the year and dry up completely sometime after. That’s where Chris Holmes studies them.

Holmes is a graduate student in the UI Department of Animal Biology working in the lab of professor Carla Cáceres. Through his Master’s project, he seeks to shed light on a big ecological question—how diversity influences community assembly dynamics—by manipulating both species and genetic diversity among Daphnia and other tiny crustaceans in experimental ponds.

[Photos: Daphnia through a microscope (Chris Holmes); Holmes and project assistant Kelly Hogan discuss sampling strategy (Ryan Smith).]

These creatures make great subjects for Holmes’ work because they reproduce quickly, which should enable him to witness evolutionary change over generations in a relatively short period of time.

Thanks to a connection his adviser has with Kim Schulz at the State University of New York - College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, Holmes has the opportunity to pursue his study at an ideal site, a group of recently created experimental ponds in upstate New York. The site includes 71 experimental ponds in all, and they vary in terms of structure, depth and the landcover surrounding them.

In addition to his advisor, Holmes is collaborating on the project with Schulz. They began work in 2010, when the ponds were excavated, by stocking them with different mixes of Daphnia and other tiny freshwater creatures. This past summer, Holmes, with a team of undergraduates he mentors, lived in Syracuse so he could get out to sample the ponds once every two weeks.

How do Holmes and company sample for aquatic zooplankton in a pond? They dip a plastic pitcher into the water and pour it through a sieve with holes almost too small for the human eye to see. What’s left in the sieve are hundreds, or even thousands of tiny organisms.

Back in the lab at Illinois, Holmes uses a microscope to count the Daphnia and other organisms from his samples and sort them by species. He points out, “This can be pretty tricky, because on the smallest ones you’re comparing legs and antenna that are only about a millimeter long.”

Some of the other research taking place at the ponds where Holmes is working has fairly straightforward, practical applications. For example, it is anticipated that research on amphibians there will provide land managers with answers to questions such as “what’s the best way to make a pond if you’re trying to create breeding habitat for salamanders and frogs.

In contrast, Cáceres and Holmes are pursuing more fundamental questions. It is well understood, they note, that populations can adapt to their environment and evolve over time. “What scientists don’t understand so well,” says Professor Cáceres, “is how the adaptation of one species may influence interactions with other species that occupy the same environment. That’s how Holmes' research is important to ecology.”