Author’s note: In the course of writing this article, outside of those interviewed for the story, nearly 100 percent of the people I’ve spoken to this past week regarding the issue of Fracking have never heard of the process and knew next to nothing of its probable proximity in Johnson County. Informed decisions are the responsibility of us all and it is why I preface this article with the request that you, the reader, look into hydraulic fracturing and come to your own informed opinion.
Johnson County commissioners found themselves before a small party of local landowners Monday who said they are looking to raise awareness to the dangers of a mining technique known as hydraulic fracturing (aka “fracking”).
For the past four months the county clerk’s office has witnessed an increased interest in the mineral rights of landowners as representatives from Western Land Services have sought to lease oil and gas rights on behalf of the Woolsey Energy Corporation out of Wichita, Kan.
The clerk’s office has already recorded more than 35 such leases and as landowners throughout Johnson County continue to receive proposals for their oil and gas rights, opponents of fracking throughout Southern Illinois have asked the state for a moratorium on drilling until fracking regulation is developed.
Currently there are no wells started in Johnson County.
Hydraulic fracturing is a controversial practice that arose to infamy a few years back when the movie “Gasland” hit the screens with scenes of a homeowner’s tap water catching fire. The film is rejected by the Oil and Gas industry as “sensationalizing” the facts and disputed online at EnergyInDepth.org/debunking-gasland.
[box_light]Flammable water is an image used often by anti-fracking activists. This video allegedly shows tap water so contaminated by fracking fluids that lighting a match next to it starts a fire. [/box_light]
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines hydraulic fracturing as a process that “produces fractures in the rock formation that stimulate the flow of natural gas or oil, increasing the volumes that can be recovered.Wells may be drilled vertically hundreds to thousands of feet below the land surface and may include horizontal or directional sections extending thousands of feet.”
It is not known when any such drilling should occur in Johnson County, but SAFE, Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing our Environment, is one of a handful of new groups forming in Southern Illinois opposing the process. The organization argues that Illinois’ water is in danger of contamination and recommends that before any drilling occurs landowners should have their drinking water tested.
Recently, SAFE worked with the Sierra Club’s Shawnee Group in conducting baseline water testing of drinking-water wells to landowners in the counties of Wayne and Saline where fracking is suspected to begin soon.
“We did what is called a ‘conductivity test,’ which is simply an electrical current passed through the water to detect if there is something besides water in the water,” said Sierra Club’s Illinois chapter staff member Terri Treacey. “There’s a numeric range of what’s acceptable and if it is above that range we recommend having the water tested by professionals.”
Treacey said the water tested in Saline County produced safe results while the water in Wayne resulted in higher than acceptable levels and could be a result of traditional mining that previously occurred in the area. She said the Sierra Club is already looking at offering the free testing of water in Johnson County and stressed the importance of the baseline testing as to have a record of a before and after.
At the commissioner’s meeting Monday, water was the primary concern and number one reason Johnson County landowner Annette McMichael attended the session.
“I have three reasons for attending,” said McMichael in a phone interview before the meeting. “Water, the economy and accountability.”
When McMichael later spoke before the board she wanted to know if it was known where the water used in hydraulic fracturing would come from. She argued that especially as Johnson County faces a drought, the issue of water usage should be a shared concerned by all of its citizens.
As the name implies, hydraulic fracturing is a process that uses a substantial volume of water to fracture the rock formation.
“Fractures are created by pumping large quantities of fluids at high pressure down a wellbore and into the target rock formation,” according to the EPA. “Hydraulic fracturing fluid commonly consists of water, proppant and chemical additives that open and enlarge fractures within the rock formation.”
Depending on the geologic basin, the amount of water required varies anywhere between hundreds of thousands of gallons up to 5 million gallons, according to a report compiled by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in a state that has already experienced fracking.
“I think the citizens of Johnson County should [be allowed] to know where that water will come from,” said McMichael. “And, I think they should know that it’s being handled safely and disposed of correctly.”
McMichael and her husband recently received a lease proposal from Woolsey and she said this began her inquiry into fracking. She said she was alarmed by what she discovered and became worried that Johnson County would soon share in the “horror stories” other counties have reported as a result of fracking. She went on to say that families in Pennsylvania near the Marcellus Shale region have seen property values and water quality plummet.
Water and sand make up 90 percent of the fluid injected into a well in the fracking process; the other ten percent is a mixture of chemicals that vary depending on the drill site but result in a toxic soup that opponents claim poison the drinking water of nearby communities.
Speaking out at the meeting as well on Monday was Union County resident Bob Iltis who said he works in Vienna and when he read of fracking on the agenda he decided to attend. Iltis asked the board if any information is available to the county on the number of trucks that are required in the process of fracking to move water to and from the wells.
“My wife is from southwestern Pennsylvania where fracking is occurring and we have witnessed up to 200 trucks, heavy trucks, traveling to and from a well every day,” said Iltis. “I was wondering if the county was aware of the burden this will put on its residents in maintaining these roads.”
McMichael asked if the county had received any bonding from Woolsey for such matters as road repairs and damages due to their activities in the county. She said of her third reason she was attending the meeting, accountability, she was worried the taxpayers in Johnson County were going to get stuck with all the costs and none of the profits. She asked if an impact tax could be imposed on the mining company.
McMichael said she and her husband are not entirely opposed to mining.
“We are just two little old landowners that just don’t want this to happen without somebody making sure it’s ok,” said McMichael.
The McMichaels are also one of a handful of Johnson County residents who have sought legal advice on the lease proposals they have received. Attending Monday’s meeting was Johnson County resident and real estate law advisor Louise Cook. Cook is an attorney in Vienna and said several of her neighbors have brought their leases to her to explain some of its language.
“I am really concerned about these leases,” said Cook before the meeting began. She said the leases are written in ways that most people may not fully understand what exactly they are signing away.
“Something in [the lease] that troubles me even more,” said Cook, “Is something called, the ‘hold harmless and indemnify clause’ and I know most people will not know what it means.”
She went on to say that the lease is written in such a way that except in the case where negligence and/or willful misconduct is proven to occur, landowners are responsible for damages on their own property that might stem from the fracking process.
“If there’s any spill, any pollutants, any toxins on the property it’s all on the landowner to clean it up,” said Cook. She said she knew of some who have received up to $50,000 for their oil and gas rights, but she added the EPA estimates one spill to cost up to $125,000 to clean.
Property devaluation was another concern she brought before the board and before the meeting saying that if a person has a mortgage on their property it is unlikely they will be able to refinance that property if they sell their oil and gas rights. She said by not owning all of the property rights refinancing becomes difficult.
“There are some standard clauses in mortgages called ‘Acceleration Clauses,” and the way these leases are written, they would trigger those acceleration clauses,” said Cook. “So a home mortgage could become due and payable immediately upon signing these leases.”
Cook said she has been conducting research for SAFE but it not a part of the organization or is opposing fracking, she said she just wants to ensure the community is aware of what it is getting into.
As Johnson County residents continue to receive lease proposal agreements and require a better understanding of what they might be signing, the University of Illinois Extension Units 24, 26 and 27 along with the Farm Bureaus of Southern Illinois plan to host three educational workshops to help landowners better understand Oil and Gas leases. The first two are scheduled for Aug. 1 with one held in the Visual & Performing Arts Center at Southeastern Illinois College in Harrisburg from 9:30 a.m. to noon, and the second held in conference rooms F 118/119 at John A Logan College in Carterville from 6 p.m. to 8:30. The third is scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 2 to be held at the Gambit Event Center in Vienna from 9:30 a.m. to noon.
While fracking will continue to maintain a level of controversy, one article is not enough to flesh out all of the details, the pros and cons. Those wishing to learn more are encouraged to conduct their own research and ask questions.[box_light]Energy In Depth, a research and public outreach group formed to promote fracking and natural gas exploration in America, created this video detailing the safety measures companies use in the fracking process.