Fracking is possible solution to Clean Power Plan, experts say

fracking gas well
A shale rig and gas well operation in western Pennsylvania. Environmental experts say hydraulic fracturing might be a possible way to achieve clean energy requirements. (WCN/Creative Commons)

By Madison Hopkins

Illinois environmental leaders delivered nearly 35,000 petitions last month to Gov. Rauner’s office, urging him to support President Obama’s controversial Clean Power Plan, which is being hotly contested in Congress and across the country. As the future of the plan remains uncertain, as does the potential paths Illinois could take to reach its strict requirements.

The Clean Power Plan calls for a 32 percent reduction in carbon emissions nationally by 2030 through restrictions on current and future coal-burning power plants. Illinois faces an even steeper requirement for a 42 percent reduction, one of only eight states with target levels above 40 percent.

Some experts believe that the most reasonable way for Illinois to comply is through an increased reliance on natural gas by way of high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” as it is commonly known.

“If we’re being serious about trying to meet the numbers, the only way I can see it happen is with natural gas,” said Winston Porter, an environmental and management consultant and former assistant administrator of the EPA. “You can throw in some wind and solar too, but that won’t be enough.”

Nuclear power is also a feasible option for cleaner energy, he added. But the process for opening a new nuclear plant can be a long and complicated road. There are currently no pending applications to build a new nuclear power plant in Illinois.

“Nuclear power produces about 20 percent of energy in the country, it is a very important 20 percent, but right now a lot don’t have the wherewithal to increase that,” he said.  “It takes time and a lot of money to license a plant, and it can be very difficult.”

Fracking is a politically controversial process in which chemicals, water and sand are shot into shale rock thousands of feet below ground with a high-pressure pump to release oil or natural gas. Opponents argue that the process creates problems of its own, including methane emissions and possible water contamination in the area.

Fracking has become common in other areas of the country, most notably Texas and the Northeast. But the process has yet to take place in Illinois, according to a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Some believe this is because of the strict regulations required for companies interested in fracking. So far, only two companies have registered for fracking with the Illinois DNR, and none have applied for a permit, which is needed to begin drilling.

Porter, however, believes it has more to do with economics than regulatory complexities.

“Illinois kind of missed the boat back when everyone was starting fracking,” Porter said. “By the time it got around to writing laws to allow it, the cost of oil and gas was so low, there was no incentive for companies to take on the cost to start drilling.”

He argued that could all change soon, however, due to incentives in the Clean Power Plan to transition coal plants to natural gas. One Illinois coal plant, in Joliet, has already announced plans to make the change.

The U.S. Department of Energy found that higher use of fracked natural gas is at least partially responsible for the U.S. reaching its lowest carbon emission levels since 1988. It is therefore being hailed as a potential strategy for states rich with natural gas resources to achieve their reduction requirements.

Illinois is home to New Albany Shale in the Illinois Basis, which runs under the Southeast portion of the state. Various news reports show that energy companies have already approached landowners in the area for leasing the rights to begin drilling, but none would comment for this story.

Environmentalists argue that the dangers of fracking outweigh any potential benefits. Besides concerns of groundwater contamination and waste disposal from the process, some question if the idea of replacing carbon emissions with methane is the right path to curb air pollution.

“We have a lot of concern about how the Clean Power Plan will be implemented and whether that will mean an increase in reliance on natural gas,” said Will Renyolds, communications director for Southern Illinois Against Fracturing our Environment (SAFE). “Switching from one fossil fuel to another is not going to be sufficient strategy for tackling climate change. That’s not a reasonable option.”

SAFE advocates for a switch to all-renewable energy by investing in wind and solar power.

“Investing in decades’ worth of infrastructure for natural gas is not a plan for transition, it’s not the answer here,” he added. “We should go directly from fossil fuels to renewable energy.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this story contained comments from Jennifer Walling from the Illinois Environmental Council. After publication, Walling felt her comments were mischaracterized and Medill Reports has removed them.

Photo at top: A shale rig and gas well operation in western Pennsylvania. Environmental experts say hydraulic fracturing might be a possible way to achieve clean energy requirements. (WCN/Creative Commons)