Monday, June 17, 2013

Quinn signs fracking bill

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn today signed legislation to regulate hydraulic fracturing in the state.

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. Large-scale fracking operations can pump hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of gallons of water into the ground. (For a detailed description of fracking and its history, see Illinois Issues May 2012.)

Senate Bill 1715 sets ground rules for the controversial practice in Illinois. The bill creates standards for drilling wells and requires water testing before and after fracking begins. If chemicals used in the process are found in water, it will be assumed that it was the fracking well operator's fault, and the operator would be required to prove otherwise. Fracking fluids will have to be stored in closed tanks instead of open pits.

Fees for permits will be $13,500 per well. Oil or gas extracted from fracking wells would be taxed at 3 percent for the first two years of the life of a well and then on a sliding scale based on production. The law offers a reduction in tax rates for operators who hire local workers.

Proponents are calling the new law, which goes into effect immediately, the strictest regulation of fracking in the nation. “This new law will unlock the potential for thousands of jobs in southern Illinois and ensure that our environment is protected,” Quinn said in a written statement. “As I said in my budget address, hydraulic fracturing is coming to Illinois with the strongest environmental regulations in the nation. It’s about jobs, and it’s about ensuring that our natural resources are protected for future generations. I applaud the many environmental advocates and representatives from government, labor and industry who worked with us to make Illinois a national model for transparency, environmental safety and economic development.”

Environmental groups were part of the negotiations that produced the bill, and many supported it, including the Illinois Sierra Club and the Illinois Environmental Council. “While our community still has concerns about the environmental impacts of this new technology, it is essential for these tough restrictions to become law to protect our communities. The environmental community looks forward to working with the governor and agencies to make sure that this bill is strongly enforced,” Jen Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, said in a written statement. Environmental groups that backed the legislation said they would have preferred a ban on fracking. But they believed it was not politically possible, and said they wanted to ensure that strong regulations were enacted.

Environmental and community groups that opposed the bill say those that worked on it were too quick to dismiss legislation that would have banned fracking until further study about its effects on health and the environment could be conducted. They say they were shut out of the process, while lawmakers used the environmental groups that supported the bill as political cover to ignore opponents. “It’s a very sad time for Illinois. We have to fight our own government to keep our children and grandchildren safe from harm,” said Tabitha Tripp, a Union County resident and volunteer with Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment (SAFE).

Annette McMichael, communications director for SAFE — an all-volunteer group that sprang up to oppose fracking — says that the organization will continue its work. “We will never never never stop.” She says that the group is planning to hold a workshop this week to plan its next moves. “We also already have a legal time in place comprised of attorneys all around the country who have offered to help us pro bono.” She said SAFE will work to help residents and local governments push back against fracking in any way they can.

“It’s still a very sad day. I’m just terribly ashamed of our state government,” she said of Quinn signing the bill today. For more on the rifts that fracking negotiations caused among environmental groups and community organizers, see the upcoming environmental issue of Illinois Issues, which comes out July 1.

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