Thursday, February 21, 2013

Plan to regulate fracking has broad support in the House

By Jamey Dunn

After a bipartisan bill to regulate hydraulic fracturing stalled last year, supporters think they have a better chance at success with a new plan.

Hydraulic fracturing, which is commonly referred to as fracking, is achieved by pumping water mixed with sand and chemicals through a well into rock that holds a carbon fuel, such as oil or natural gas. The water creates pressure, which fractures the rock or opens up pre-existing cracks. The sand holds the cracks open so the gas and/or oil can be extracted. It has been done since the 1930s. But recently, fracking has been coupled with horizontal drilling, which allows gas and oil companies to drill down into the earth and then permeate rock along a horizontal line, which is sometimes miles long. The marrying of the two technologies has allowed for projects that are much larger in scale.

The combined practice is not specifically regulated in Illinois, but many lawmakers, environmentalists and regulators agree it is coming to the state. Two Illinois rock formations, the New Albany Shale in the southeast and the Maquoketa Group Shale in the north, could potentially hold carbon fuels. Energy companies across the nation have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to lease mineral rights for land above these formations, mainly in southern Illinois. “We don’t have regulations in the state of Illinois, we don’t have laws that will deal with horizontal fracking,” said Chicago Democratic Rep. Barbara Flynn Curry. She said that fracking could start in the state at any time without a bureaucratic system to regulate it or bar certain practices.

 House Bill 2615 has a broad coalition of supporters, including Republicans, Democrats, environmental groups, unions and representatives of the coal and natural gas industry. The bill would create a permitting and regulatory system for horizontal fracking. It would not apply to vertical fracking wells. The measure would:

  • Set standards for the cement casings that are put into wells to prevent leakage of fracking fluid.
  • Require water testing before and after hydraulic fracturing wells are constructed.
  • Require disclosure of chemicals used in the process.
  • Set standards for the disposal of water used for fracking.
  • Prohibit hydraulic fracturing near certain sensitive sites and water sources, including schools, churches and health care facilities.

 If water pollution were detected near a fracking wells, it would be the owners’ responsibility to prove that it was not caused be the well. “We have crafted a piece of legislation, which first and foremost protects our water supply and the communities and families of southern Illinois but allows an industry to develop in a responsible manner for the creation of thousands of jobs and the potential for tens of millions of dollars of revenue for the state of Illinois,” said Marion Democratic Rep. John Bradley, who sponsors the bill.

Willow Hill Republican Rep. David Reis, who also sponsors the measure, said that fracking revenues could help bolster the state’s struggling budget. “This is historic from an economic standpoint. We know we have to put the safeguards in place, and we’ve done that with this [bill]. But the revenue that this is going to generate for the entire state of Illinois through income taxes and severance taxes — that we’re still going to negotiate — reoccurring sales taxes is going to be maybe one of the things we need to get out of our financial challenges that we face in this state.”

Environmental groups that worked on the bill say they do not support the practice, which has vocal detractors in other states that already have horizontal fracking operations, coming to the Illinois. “In the environmental community, we have a lot of concerns about what fracking is going to bring to Illinois, and when we look at some of the controversies that have happened in other parts of the country, there’s a real need for us to prepare for that,” said Jack Darin, director of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club. But they say fracking in Illinois may be inevitable, and they want to make sure that there are regulations in place when that day comes. “We understand that the industry is coming to Illinois ... and I think we all understand that our current set of rules and regulations and laws are not up to the task of looking at the potential impacts from this industry.”

But those who support a moratorium on fracking disagree. “Fracking is not inevitable,” said Liz Patula, coordinator of Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment (SAFE). Senate Bill 1418 calls for a ban on horizontal fracking and the creation of a task force to study the issue. Patula called the move a “common sense” approach. “The idea of just writing a regulatory bill out of fear, that doesn’t make any sense.”

Patula said SAFE has several concerns with the bill. “The idea that the bill is written on so-called best practices in other states — well, that hasn’t exactly worked in other states.” She said that any fracking regulation should allow for local controls, including local bans on fracking. SAFE plans to do a comprehensive analysis of the legislation in the coming weeks. Patula said there is also worry that the state lacks the funds and manpower to enforce the proposed regulations. The Department of Natural Resources would be responsible for much of the permitting process. The legislature recently passed a funding package for DNR, which included an increase to license plate fees, because the agency lacked the funds to keep up with maintenance of the state’s parks.

“Whatever is written, how could it possibly be enforced?” Patula asked. SB 2615 does not address the fees that would be paid by licensees. Bradley said the need for additional funding and manpower to regulate the new industry would be a consideration when negotiating such costs. “We’re going to have to figure out in the process of coming up with permits and applications. We’re going to have to make sure that they have sufficient funding in order to process the increased amount of work.”

 Bradley said he thinks horizontal fracking could start in Illinois by the end of the year. “The pressure is on for the state of Illinois." He said he hopes to move through the process soon and not wait until the end of the spring legislative session to get it passed.

Gov. Pat Quinn supports SB 2615. “Today’s proposal is good news for southern Illinois and our entire state’s economy. This legislation has the potential to bring thousands of jobs to southern Illinois, while also ensuring that Illinois has the nation’s strongest environmental protections,” Quinn said in a prepared statement. “I am committed to creating jobs and economic growth in every part of Illinois and always making sure our water and natural resources are protected for future generations.”


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