Illinois Issues: Confusion And Tensions Linger About Fracking In Southern Illinois

Dec 16, 2016

No permits for horizontal hydraulic fracturing have been issued since the Illinois Department of Natural Resources started taking applications in the fall of 2014. Even so, there were some in Grayville who believed that a well was fracked in October under the new law. 

(This story is a sidebar to an in-depth report that looks at what’s happened with high-volume horizontal  hydraulic fracking in southern Illinois since the state adopted new regulations. Read that here.

Campbell Energy LLC recently drilled the well in question in an open field behind a Super 8 hotel. Concerns floated around town about whether that had affected the drinking water, because it had turned a funky color and a boil order was issued late that month.

“Our water is disgusting here, I think. I don’t drink it. I buy it. ... You’ve got stuff growing on it that’s never grown before,” Mike Moutray says, as he stands near the door of Gillard’s Hardware Store in downtown Grayville shooting the breeze with the checkout clerk, Darrell Neal.

Both say they have concerns about fracking in the Grayville area. “They had a big old write up in Oklahoma about it causing earthquakes,” Neal says.

Joe Bisch, the mayor, also assumed the activity behind the Super 8 utilized the high-volume hydraulic fracturing process allowed under the new Illinois’ law. Bisch says he made that assumption based on the fact that the company had purchased, for about $20,000, in the neighborhood of a million gallons of water from the city around that time. 

Jakob Campbell, a co-owner of Carmi-based Campbell Energy, has another explanation. “The water was not brought in for the purpose of fracking,” he says. Campbell says the company did pay for about a million gallons, but the majority of it wasn’t used on site. The crew intentionally overestimated need because if they ran out of water, the process would have to start anew and water is the cheapest part of the process, Cambell says.

He says Cambell energy has some problems with the drilling that required the use of more water than a typical job. “We lost circulation. That well actually was a nightmare,” he says. After hitting a porous streak, the walls of the well broke down, Campbell says, and it required an abundance of fluid to mix with circulation materials to overcome the break and seal it off.

“It didn’t go quite as planned,” Campbell says, but it was not a high-volume horizontal frack, which would fall under the state’s regulations. A typical vertical well that is fracked, as this one was, uses about 8,000 gallons to 20,000 gallons, and in this particular case, about 300,000 gallons were used to overcome the breakdown of the well, he says.

Bisch says that there may have been a mild discoloration of the water related to the large amount pumped into a tank at the drilling site. But the bulk of the problem was unrelated, he says. The mayor says the city had its water tanks cleaned in late October, and the next weekend, there was an electrical glitch, the generator didn’t kick over and the tanks went dry.
 

Mayor Joe Bisch speaks at Grayville City Hall about the city's economic development plans tied to the oil and gas industry.
Credit Richard Sitler / The Southern Illinoisan

Some of the city’s water pipes are more than 100 years old and constructed of cast iron. Deposits have built up inside the line. When the tanks were refilled, the rush of water disturbed the settlement inside the pipes. That caused the discoloration in some people’s drinking water. It was really bad in some places, he says, and a boil order was in place from October 29 to November 2. The city is working in coordination with several nearby communities to build a joint water filtration system, which should clear up the drinking water supply, he says.

That said, conventional drilling is utilizing more water in the Illinois Basin than it used to, Campbell explained.

“The Illinois Basin is a mature basin. It’s been producing since 1906. So all of the easy oil has already been produced,” Campbell says. “What we are having to look at currently today to make these wells economical and make them work, we have to frack multiple pay zones.”

So instead of only fracking one interval with 10,000 gallons of water, companies now are having to frack three intervals with 10,000 gallons each, and sometimes as many as seven or eight intervals, which could consume upwards of 80,000 gallons of water. But it’s nowhere near the amount used in the horizontal fracturing process.
 

For the large amount of water it can use and the perceived threat of drinking water contamination, that process remains controversial in Illinois and can easily elicit strong emotions.  And it did when Southern Illinois University Carbondale campus hosted an expert in petroleum and environmental geochemistry from the University of Oklahoma earlier this month. Paul Philp, a professor emeritus, delivered a rather staid presentation titled “The Fracking Revolution in the Oil and Gas Business.”

He began by saying he wasn’t for or against fracking, but rather was asked to present on the science of the process and recent developments in the industry.

Philp’s efforts to keep the talk non-political didn’t prevent the event from turning a bit contentious. During the question-and-answer portion at the end, a man in the audience accuses Philp of glossing over facts — cherry picking information and claiming no one had been injured by fracking. “There’s a lot of people who’ve been injured by fracking,” the audience member says forcefully.

Grayville Mayor Joe Bisch explains why the city experienced discoloration of its drinking water supply in late October. While some in town suggested it was related to hydraulic fracturing, Bisch said it was due to an electrical glitch that caused a well to go dry. A citywide boil order was issued.
Credit Richard Sitler / The Southern Illinoisan

“I don’t remember saying it didn’t injure anybody,” Philp responds as the back-and-forth continues.

Philp says he doesn’t disagree with some of the apprehension over fracking. He cites concerns that tremors and earthquakes are induced by the disposal water deep into the ground. He also notes the ramifications of moving heavy equipment into some environmentally sensitive areas and problems with old abandoned wells leaking methane. He acknowledges concerns that exist about contamination of the groundwater, although he says that the number of fresh water aquifers that have been polluted by the process are minimal.

Philp says that overall, there are many aspects of hydraulic fracturing that are misunderstood — by the general public, environmentalist, industry people and scientific experts.

“You just seem to be going on and on about how this is so wonderful,” the audience member says to Philp at the end of the exchange. But, he says, that everywhere fracking has happened, it seems to have left behind environmental disasters.

Philp disagrees. “I don’t think it is an environmental disaster,” He says. “I’m not saying it’s perfectly clean either. There are issues. There are issues with any type of energy consumption.”