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Illinois: Fracking Pair-adise?

By JoshMogerman in News on Nov 17, 2012 10:00PM

LaSalle Canyon Falls at Starved Rock State Park [Carlton Holls, Jr.]

The national debate on fracking---the drilling practice of injecting water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to release oil and natural gas from shale formations---has hit Illinois like a ton of bricks…or, maybe a mound of sand. While the Land of Lincoln isn’t exactly synonymous with oil and gas drilling, debate downstate and a looming decision from state regulators at the fringes of one of the state’s most popular parks underscore Illinois’ potentially unique position as a state doubly impacted by the energy boom: hosting fracking and the sand mines that feed the industry. Both have stirred growing concerns of pollution and worrisome industrialization of rural landscapes to go along with the revenue elected officials in the region desperately seek.

We looked at the sand mine squabble next door to Starved Rock State Park earlier in the year. Despite significant community uproar, LaSalle County and the state have moved permits forward for the project. Tomorrow stands as the final deadline for public input on draft water pollution permits for the mine, which remains a source of tension along the Illinois River, southwest of Chicago. Last month, hundreds rallied to express concerns over potential impacts to Starved Rock, citing public backlash against similar mines that have popped up in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa due to excessive noise, dust and truck traffic as a threat to the local tourism economy and quality of life in the area (and we have to say, that all does sound pretty contrary to what folks are looking for on their jaunts to get back to nature in our state parks, especially after reading about McGregor, Iowa).

Despite public objections, the sand mining industry has expanded quickly in the Midwest, where mountains of sand perfect for fracking use are fairly easy to get at support a massive demand:

A metric ton of the material sells for about $40 to $50, [said Thomas Dolley, a mineral commodity specialist for the U.S. Geological Survey]. But that excludes transportation costs, which can push the total cost for an oil and gas producer above $200 a ton.

And enormous quantities of sand are being produced to feed the gas-drilling boom. A single frack job in the Barnett Shale formation in northeast Texas can require 100,000 to 300,000 pounds of sand, and a single well can be fracked numerous times, requiring some 3 million pounds of sand, [said Shari Dunn-Norman, associate professor of petroleum engineering at Missouri S&T University in Rolla].

But miners may not need to ship all the way to Texas. While Illinois shares its neighboring states’ sandy geologic nature in the north and east, a big chunk of the state sits above the New Albany Shale, which may contain frackable oil and natural gas deposits. Energy companies have already bought up drilling rights throughout many downstate counties. As the debate over fracking impacts on communities and water resources elsewhere rages, activity here is sparking fear in communities near potential drilling sites and has lawmakers in Springfield moving to update state regulations, which currently only address conventional drilling. Since most states only host sand mines or drillers, Illinois is poised to be uniquely doubled down. No doubt, the process of figuring out fracking and avoiding the failures of other states (or not doing it at all) will bring more contentious debates in the coming months.