Thursday, May 30, 2013

Fracking bill has a clear path to becoming law

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois House today overwhelmingly approved regulations for horizontal fracturing, which supporters say will be the strictest in the nation.

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, is a process used to extract oil and natural 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. “There are strong requirements and standards regarding water usage, regarding water disposal, regarding water containment,” said Marion Democratic Rep. John Bradley, who sponsors the bill. Senate Bill 1715 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 sets fees for permits at $13,500 per well. The measure would set the tax on oil or gas extracted from fracking wells at 3 percent for the first two years of the life of a well and then on a sliding scale based on production. Supporters say that fracking will be a boon for the state and struggling economies in southern Illinois. “When the coal mines closed, we lost tens of thousands of jobs downstate,” Bradley said.

The bill has a broad coalition of supporters, including business leaders and environmental groups. The environmental advocates who backed the bill said they would prefer a ban on fracking, but they said it is already happening in the state, and current law would not specifically regulate it. The Department of Natural Resources has reported that according to their permits, fracking is already taking place in Illinois. “While it will not make fracking safe, this is a critical step to make sure that Illinois has some protections to prevent environmental degradation,” said Democratic Rep. Sam Yingling of Round Lake Beach.

Some southern Illinois groups and environmental activist have been leading a loud push back against the bill. They were not involved in the negotiations, and members of those groups have been staging sit-ins this week outside Gov. Pat Quinn’s office, hoping to get a meeting with the governor, who supports the bill, and change his mind. Quinn’s staff met with some of those in opposition, but they did not have a sit down with the governor. Chicago Democratic Rep. Deborah Mell, who cast one of the nine votes against the bill, said she would like to see fracking put on hold for a few years so the results of some high-profile pending studies could come in before the state makes a decision on the issue. “I just hope that we’re not making a big mistake here. I just wish that we could kind of stop the clock a little bit.”

 Champaign Democratic Sen. Michael Frerichs, who sponsors SB 1715, said he expects it to pass in the Senate tomorrow. The Senate approved a fracking regulatory bill last year with no votes in opposition. Quinn plans to sign the bill. “Today’s passage of hydraulic fracturing legislation in the House brings good news for jobs, economic development and environmental protection in Illinois. This legislation will unlock the potential for thousands of jobs in southern Illinois, while ensuring that our state has the nation‘s strongest environmental protections in place for this industry,” Quinn said in a written statement. “Over the past year, we have brought together lawmakers, industry and labor leaders and environmental groups in a collaborative, bipartisan effort to develop the best possible legislation. This approach has not only worked but been praised as a national model for transparency, public participation, environmental safety and economic development.”

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