On Friday, Aug. 29, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources submitted new regulations regarding hydraulic fracturing, commonly called "fracking." The Illinois Legislature's Joint Committee on Administrative Rules has 45 days to approve or reject the rules. Robert Bauer, an engineering geologist with the Illinois State Geological Survey, part of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois, talked about the new proposed regulations with News Bureau physical sciences editor Liz Ahlberg.
What is "fracking"?
Fracturing and hydraulic fracturing are not new. Fracturing of the oil- or gas-producing rock in wells connects the many spaces in the rock containing the oil or gas. This allows more of the oil or gas to be removed from the formation. Fracturing was first used a few years after the first oil well in the United States, which was in 1859. Starting in the 1860s, nitroglycerin torpedoes were used to blast the formation in the well. That method has been replaced by hydraulic fracturing, which started commercially in the U.S. in 1949 - 65 years ago.
Depending on the formation of the rock containing the oil or gas (limestone, sandstone, tight sandstone or shale), various materials are used in the fracturing, also called the stimulation operation. Water and some chemicals are forced into the rock, usually for several hours to part of a day, to connect the voids containing the product. In the shale formations, this process extends the fracture in the shale, and sand is added to prop open the fractures as the pressures are stopped at the end of the fracturing operation. There are other materials that are used other than water, such as nitrogen gas mixed with small quantities of water. Massive hydraulic fracturing with the use of about 1 million gallons of water per well started in the 1970s. Tens of thousands of wells in Illinois have used various fracturing techniques in mostly vertical wells and even in shale as far back as 1979.
Why are people concerned about it?
I believe people are concerned because they feel this is a new technology that has been added to horizontal drilling with very little experience and studies, and they fear this fracturing can reach and contaminate groundwater sources. In fact, the first recorded horizontal oil well was in 1929, and they became common about 30 years ago. Within about the past 15 to 20 years, technology for drilling horizontal wells and directing and knowing where the cutting head is in three dimensions, in real time, has accelerated its use. In addition, people believe that the extraction of oil and gas from shale formations is new. In our area, the New Albany Shale is a possible source. The first drilling for New Albany gas was in Indiana in 1885, and a large number of fields were drilled in Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky in the first half of the 1900s. In northern Michigan, more than 10,000 vertical wells have been hydraulically fractured in shale and have been producing gas for over 30 years.
What are the new rules proposed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources?
States regulate oil and gas wells. Illinois has had regulations since about the 1940s and has continued to change them through time. The new rules cover high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing operations. Volumes of fluids used in the fracturing operations, which can be water or another liquid such as nitrogen, define which horizontal wells fall under these new rules. The rules define what is required for permits and all operating procedures, including permit submittal, public hearings, drilling pad locations, drilling standards, groundwater protection, water testing in the area, control and reporting of fracturing fluids, and site cleanup. There are 150 pages of these rules and this list is just a sample. There are separate rules that were also added to the Oil and Gas Act for provisions on disposal of fracturing fluids that come back out of the borehole after the high-pressure fracturing of the borehole. The Oil and Gas Act contains many similar rules that have been used for decades for the tens of thousands of oil wells in Illinois.
How will these rules change things for companies seeking to expand fracking in Illinois?
This greatly expands items required in the permitting process for review, provides much more oversight concerning fracturing fluids, and lengthens the permit review process for these horizontal wells defined in the Act and regulations. There will be much more monitoring, testing and reporting of materials by the well operators.
What role did the ISGS play in advising the IDNR on the proposed rules?
Many state agencies provided scientific background information or are involved in oversight or potential oversight of such operations, such as the Department of Health, the Illinois EPA, and the attorney general's office, to name a few. These agencies, along with industry and environmental groups, were part of the group that drafted the Hydraulic Fracturing Act under the leadership of Illinois General Assembly Rep. John Bradley. State agencies provided scientific background to the various parts of the Act. ISGS was first contacted about seismicity issues related to hydraulic fracturing and deep wastewater disposal wells by the attorney general's office and later provided counsel on these issues to IDNR during drafting of the regulations.