Natural gas is being heralded as America’s salvation, a plentiful natural resource that can rescue our economy and environment. No longer, advocates say, will we be dependent on foreign oil. No need to burn dirty coal to produce electricity.

This assumes, of course, it’s full-speed ahead with fracking. More properly known as hydraulic fracturing, it’s the high-pressure, underground injection of water, sand and chemicals to break up rock formations to get the gas flowing. But many people think fracking is a bad idea, mainly because of water consumption and contamination concerns.

Fracking a single well can require several million gallons of water. Some of the drilling waste must be processed or stored because it contains toxic chemicals, even known carcinogens. There’s a risk groundwater would be contaminated and escaping methane, a potent greenhouse gas, would pollute the air.

Government at all levels has shown little interest in regulating fracking. A federal study of its impact on water supplies is due in two years. Legislation authorizing standards has stalled in Springfield. The McLean County Board has started to collect information, but is essentially waiting for the state to establish some rules.

Here’s an additional local concern:

The Lake Bloomington area is home to a pair of large underground natural gas storage areas operated by Nicor. Drive north of Normal on Pipeline Road and you’ll see an above-ground compressor station southeast of Hudson. There’s a similar facility east of Kappa. Together, they can store enough natural gas to supply every home in Illinois for a couple of weeks. That’s 18 billion cubic feet of gas under pressure in underground aquifers — a bit like blowing up a balloon under water.

Nicor is noticeably reluctant to discuss fracking as it relates to underground natural gas storage, saying its thing is distribution, not exploration.

But the picture becomes clear in discussions with others. Frack too close to an underground storage area and you could penetrate that balloon. That’s why, in one of the few Illinois regulations governing the matter, the Department of Natural Resources requires gas or oil producers wanting to drill within a protective boundary to have a written understanding with the storage operator. Without an agreement, chances of getting a drilling permit are slim and none.

Storage facility operators don’t want a driller to tap their bubble, lest they wind up buying back some of their own gas. But public safety also is an issue. In fact, it’s the first thing mentioned in the IDNR rules concerning drilling agreements.

To be fair, underground natural gas storage facilities have a good safety record. The McLean County sites have been in use since the early ’70s. But fracking introduces new issues and new concerns.

An expanded, less expensive energy supply is a sweet thought. But nothing is more important than preserving our water resources — unless it’s protecting our overall safety.

And, this issue shouldn’t only be on the minds of McLean County folks. Nicor has an underground storage facility in northwest Livingston County, between Streator and Minonk.

It’s the largest aquifer storage facility in the western hemisphere.


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