Fracking: Where there’s a drill, there’s a way? In Illinois, maybe not

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It seems Illinois needs a full-fledged drilling rig if it wants to extract acceptable rules on fracking in the state.

Six months ago, Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law legislation that had passed by wide margins in both houses to regulate fracking, or hydrauling fracturing. The bill was the result of an agreement hammered out between drilling interests and environmentalists, and Quinn boasted it gave Illinois the best environmental protections in the nation.

But the devil is always in the details. It’s the Department of Natural Resources’ job to translate more than 100 pages of legislation into rules governing fracking. It’s complicated because no one is allowed to talk to each other ex parte, i.e., in private.

When the DNR put out a first draft of the regulations, no one was very happy, as often happens with complicated legislation. Environmentalists thought the rules were weaker than the compromise legislation envisioned, and the drilling industry had its own objections. And some grass-roots environmentalists have been complaining all along that the mainline environmental groups that participated in the legislative negotiations caved.

“We do think the DNR needs to go back to the drawing board on these rules because they are not as strong as the law,” said Jack Darin, director of the Sierra Club’s Illinois chapter. “We viewed the law as a floor, not a ceiling, in terms of protections. … Given the consequences of a mistake or an accident and the great difficulty of remediating contaminated groundwater, we need to make sure these rules are as strong as possible from the get-go. … We don’t think these rules are good enough to protect the public.”

For one thing, the penalties for violations are too low to deter potential violators, he said.

Some of the industry objections are pretty technical. An example: ” … the language should be revised to allow placement of the centralizer ‘within 10 feet of the bottom’ or ‘on the first joint about the casing shoe.’ ”

The 50-day deadline for comment passed Jan. 3 after five public hearings, and the DNR now is supposed to come up with a second draft of the rules, which should take two to three months. If they’re acceptable, the regs will go to the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules for a final OK. If all goes well (from a pro-fracking viewpoint), rules could be in place by April or May, and fracking permits could be issued by summer or early fall.

Fracking uses water, chemicals and sand to extract previously inaccessible oil and gas by cracking open deep rock formations. Opponents worry about hazardous waste and groundwater contamination. 

Fracking continues to be a controversial issue across the country. In Illinois, the Natural Resources Defense Council said, nearly 20,000 comments calling for tougher measures to protect public health and the environment were delivered to the DNR. Nationally, on Thursday Civic Action announced a #FrackingFighter initiative to support 100 grassroots activists who are working to ban fracking in their local communities.

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