By STEVE BINDER
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Five months of talks among bipartisan lawmakers and representatives of the energy lobby and environmentalists have yielded proposed state rules for hydraulic fracturing, a controversial method of extracting gas and oil, also known as fracking.
Illinois state Rep. John Bradley, a Democrat from Marion, and east-central Illinois Rep. David Reis, a Republican from Willow Hill, introduced House Bill 2615 late last week, and it immediately received a label of being “the strongest and most comprehensive” legislation regarding fracking in the United States.
Ann Alexander, a senior attorney for the National Resources Defense Council based in Chicago, said most observers are surprised at the scope of the proposed bill. “Six months ago, the notion that Illinois could step forward as a national leader in regulating the risky and problematic process of horizontal hydraulic fracturing would have provoked deep skepticism,” she said. “And the idea that this could be done by bipartisan consensus, with industry and the environmental community working together, would have sounded like a pipe dream.”
Helping drive a bipartisan movement on the issue in the statehouse is the state’s fragile fiscal condition. Deep in debt – with a deficit approaching $9 billion and overseeing nation’s worst unfunded pension system – Illinois would benefit from the jobs and revenue fracking is expected to bring, particularly in southern Illinois, Bradley said. “We all know what kind of shape our state is in, and if we regulate this process in a responsible way and take into account everyone’s interests, we all can come out ahead,” he added.
Reis described the legislation as “historic, from an economic standpoint. The revenue that this is going to generate for the entire state of Illinois ... is going to be maybe one of the things we need to get out of our financial challenges that we face in this state.”
The law would require a state permit be issued through the state’s Department of Natural Resources for any drilling. It also would require that: chemical-laced water pumped out of the ground to be stored in closed tanks, rather in open ponds; all chemicals used in fracking must be disclosed before drilling begins; permits may be suspended during drought conditions.
Liability for any contamination that occurs near drilling operations automatically falls on the drillers, unless proven otherwise; any citizen has the right to appeal any issued permit, and to call for public hearings regarding any proposed permit; and the state will maintain a website with detailed drilling applications.
The top target of energy companies is part of the Illinois Basin that contains New Albany Shale. The 60,000 square-mile basin includes most of Illinois and parts of Indiana and Kentucky, and the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates the area has about 11 trillion cubic feet of shale gas.
It is enough gas to meet the needs of about 5 million households for 30 years, according to the American Gas Assoc.
Thousands of landowners in central and southern Illinois already have sold mineral rights to companies since last year, in anticipation of fracking. The president of Western Land Services, a Michigan-based company that acquires titles for energy companies, told The Associated Press last fall it already had signed about 1,000 leases covering several thousand acres in southern Illinois.
Prices have ranged from a one-time payment of $25-$500 per acre, along with a percentage of royalties on any oil or gas sold, usually about 15 percent. The Illinois Farm Bureau has not taken an official position on the issue, but has organized public seminars and offered tips to landowners before signing away any mineral rights.
Gov. Pat Quinn said Friday he backs the legislation, while a group of residents who are members of Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment (SAFE) continue to support legislation first proposed last year that calls for at least a two-year ban on fracking.
“Today’s proposal is good news for southern Illinois and our entire state’s economy,” Quinn said. “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.”
SAFE member Annette McMichael said, “The only reasonable, common-sense course of action is to carefully study the impacts of high-volume fracking on water, air and soil resources, health of residents, plus various other concerns before any potential regulatory scheme is even considered.”