Tuesday, May 21, 2013

House advances fracking deal

By Jamey Dunn

Supporters of fracking regulation have reached an agreement in the House that is likely to sail past the vocal opposition from some community groups and environmentalists and reach the governor’s desk.

Senate Bill 1715 is the product of months of negotiations between lawmakers, industry representatives, unions, environmental groups and regulators. Backers call it the strictest regulations of horizontal hydraulic fracturing in the country.

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, is a process used to extract oil and gas by pumping water, chemicals and sand into the ground. The water fractures a source rock, allowing gas or oil to escape and be collected. Sand is used to hold the cracks in the rock open. Chemicals are added to the water for a variety of reasons, such as disinfection, lubrication and making the water thicker to keep the sand from sinking.

A House committee approved the legislation unanimously this morning. “I live in southern Illinois. I drink the water in southern Illinois. My children drink the water in southern Illinois. My neighbors drink the water in southern Illinois,” said sponsor Rep. John Bradley, a Marion Democrat. “Our first and foremost presumption, effort, intent in everything we did in every negotiation we had, was first and foremost, we’re going to protect the ground water in southern Illinois. Secondly, if we can do that, we are going to give this industry an opportunity to develop in a responsible matter and create jobs and economic development in the area.”

The bill would create standards for drilling wells and requires water testing before and after fracking begins. If fracking chemicals are found in water, it would assumed that it was the well operator's fault, and the operator would be required to prove otherwise. It also would assess fees to be paid by operators that would be used to fund oversight efforts.

Environmental groups who were in talks over the legislation said they would prefer a ban on fracking, but they say it is coming to the state, and it needs to be regulated. “The environmental community is not endorsing high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, nor are we encouraging it in the state. This legislation does not open the gates for fracking to come into Illinois; the gates are already open. This new controversial technology is already permitted and may already be in use,” said Jennifer Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council. She said current mining and drilling regulations are not enough. “These protections are important, but they do not mean that we are confident that fracking can be done safely. Our support for these safeguards does not represent an endorsement of fracking. However, we believe that operators are seeking permits for fracking today, and it is essential for the legislature to pass tough restrictions before the end of session to protect our communities.”

But opponents accused such groups of being “complicit” in allowing fracking into the state. “When you look under fracking’s hood, you find terrifying problems because behind the hard sell and the soothing promise that you’ve heard here this morning. This contraption is unsafe at any speed,” Sandra Steingraber, a scholar in residence at Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y., told the committee. She urged lawmakers to follow New York’s lead and adopt a moratorium on fracking until the potential environmental and health impacts are studied. Steingraber lives on the East Coast now, but she grew up in Pekin, Ill. New York lawmakers have been weighing the issue for about four years. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has still not made a public decision on fracking but has instead called for further study.

 Business groups that support fracking say that it will bring much-needed jobs to southern Illinois “While this is not a perfect bill, this is a bill unique to the challenges of the state of Illinois and has some of the strongest environmental regulations in the nation,” said Mark Denzler, vice president and chief operating officer of the Illinois Manufacturers Association. “We cannot let perfect get in the way of possible when we’re talking about creating tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue for state coffers.” But Steingraber said that without considering the potential costs of fracking to the health of residents and the environment, projections about the boost it might give to the economy or the state revenues are incomplete. “Shale gas extraction by fracking is an accident-prone, carcinogen-dependent enterprise. It turns communities into industrial zones, and until and unless you understand and quantify those costs, you cannot claim that fracking Illinois will provide economic benefits.”

The bill passed with no debate or questions from members of the committee. The vote was met with calls of “for shame” from opponents in attendance. Several community organizations from southern Illinois and throughout the state were in Springfield today to protest and lobby against the bill. But at this point, their efforts appear to be in vain. Barring any major developments, the bill is expected to pass in the House. Gov. Pat Quinn and Attorney General Lisa Madigan support the measure. House Speaker Michael Madigan said he supports a ban, but he also said he expects a regulation bill to pass before the spring legislative session is scheduled to adjourn at the end of the month.  Last year, the Senate passed less restrictive fracking legislation with no votes in opposition. 

For more on fracking, see Illinois Issues May 2012.


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