By Jamey Dunn
Drilling companies looking to start fracking operations in Illinois can begin registering with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. But the department says there is still much to be done before it will begin to issue permits.
“We need to be very clear of where we are with the process,” said IDNR spokesman Chris McCloud. The new hydraulic fracturing regulations approved by lawmakers in the spring require drilling companies to register with the state. They must provide information about any previous environmental violations they may have and show proof that they have the proper insurance. However, IDNR does not yet have a timeline for issuing permits. The department is working on developing a draft of rules, which McCloud says could be completed by the end of the year. The rules will determine many aspects of implementation that are not included in the new law. After the draft rules are complete, there will be a public comment period. The Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR) will have to take up the final draft. Fracking, in which water mixed with sand and chemicals is pumped through a well into rock to extract oil or natural gas, will not be allowed until the department has a final set of rules in place.
So far, no companies have registered with the department. But representatives of the industry say they are glad to see the process moving forward. “We are very pleased the Department of Natural Resources is opening up the registration process,” Mark Denzler, co-chair of industry group GROW-IL and chief operating officer of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, said in a prepared statement. “Our coalition is excited progress is being made to realize the tremendous economic benefit of hydraulic fracturing here in Illinois. This law will create thousands of jobs, millions of dollars in revenue, while keeping our environment safe.”
McCloud says the department cannot yet predict when it will begin approving permits and allowing operations to begin. He said that before fracking begins, the department plans to hire up to 53 people and create a new section to specifically oversee oil and gas extraction. He said that once fracking is underway, citizens will be able to look up details, including the depths and locations of wells and background information on well operators, on a website that IDNR will create. “The public disclosure components to this ... are far and away more than any other regulatory process we have," he said.
But opponents of fracking say the process is anything but open. They say that while the department is working on the rules, it has not consulted any community groups that have lobbied to ban fracking in southern Illinois. “We have a right to know what’s going on,” said Annette McMichael, communications director for Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment. “It’s been very frustrating.” She says her group and others have had meetings with IDNR and presented a list of demands, including disclosure requirements and grounds for suspension of fracking permits, that they would like to see incorporated into the final rules. But McMichael said they do not know if the department is considering any of their suggestions. The group also is asking that JCAR hold several public hearings on the rules before they are approved.
“We have requested that they have three public hearings, including one in southern Illinois, one in central Illinois and one in Chicago. But we have no reason to believe that that request will be granted,” McMichael said. In the meantime, members of SAFE, a volunteer group that unsuccessfully pushed for a moratorium on fracking, are traveling throughout southern Illinois holding informational sessions for residents who have concerns about what fracking will mean for their region once wells are eventually up and running.
For more on the fracking process, see Illinois Issues May 2012.
For more on the politics of the battle over fracking, see Illinois Issues July/August 2013.