Illinois House Republicans push for fracking bill vote

SPRINGFIELD – House Republicans cranked up the pressure Tuesday for a vote on legislation regulating high-volume oil and gas drilling in Illinois, saying it has the backing of industry and environmentalists and would pass easily, and that the state is losing out on jobs and revenue by dragging its heels.

Minority Leader Tom Cross and Rep. David Reis, a sponsor of the bill, accused House Speaker Michael Madigan of holding up the vote for political reasons while lawmakers try to overhaul the state’s worst-in-the-nation pension problem and other contentious issues. The Republicans said the bill – aside from a last-minute amendment on hiring requirements – has the support to pass.

“It’s unfortunate sometimes that groups and industries get used as pawns for leverage,” said Reis, who didn’t detail the politicking allegations. “This is too important of an issue.”

Madigan has said he supports a temporary ban on hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” while further study is conducted on its safety, though some have suggested that was meant to pressure industry over fees and “severance” taxes – which since were worked out – or to use as leverage on other legislation.

More than 50 House members have already pledged to support the bill, which was crafted during months of negotiations involving industry officials and environmentalists and which supporters say would establish the strictest regulations on fracking in the country. Gov. Pat Quinn supports the bill, which he calls a jobs measure.

But the proposal has been stalled in committee, most recently after a union-backed amendment was filed to require energy companies to hire state-licensed water well drillers.

“You want skilled workers. You don’t let some guy wander in from who knows where,” Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said Tuesday. “He (Madigan) wants a moratorium unless the safeguards can be worked out.”

Hydraulic fracturing uses high-pressure mixtures of water, sand or gravel and chemicals to crack rock formations and release oil and natural gas. While the industry says it can be done without harm, opponents say it could cause pollution and deplete water resources.

Union officials say the hiring measure would help protect drinking-water aquifers from potential contamination.

But oil and gas industry officials say energy companies have drilled in Illinois for decades without such a requirement, and it would be unsafe to add a worker who wasn’t trained in fracking. They also warned Madigan and the bill’s sponsor, Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion, in a letter that energy companies might skip Illinois altogether if the requirement isn’t dropped.

“They have plenty of work to go around (in other states) and could just bypass Illinois,” said Mark Denzler, vice president of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association.

Bradley didn’t return a message seeking comment. Republicans said they didn’t support the hiring amendment and want it tabled, meaning it wouldn’t be part of the vote.

Opponents of fracking – including a group of downstate land owners and some environmentalists – have called for a 2-year moratorium on the practice, citing a need for more environmental and health studies. But there has been no action on House and Senate bills seeking such a pause.

Ann Alexander, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council who helped negotiate the regulations, said lawmakers must act soon to pass either the regulations or a moratorium because there is nothing to stop fracking from starting anytime.

“The door now is wide open for fracking and that’s the problem,” Alexander said. “We need some regulations to govern it before it starts.”

Supporters also say the extraction of oil and natural gas could create tens of thousands of jobs in struggling areas of southern Illinois, where drillers are eyeing a formation called the New Albany shale.

But consideration of the fracking bill comes as lawmakers have other big issues before them as the end of session approaches.

For one, Quinn has made it his top priority to address Illinois’ roughly $100 billion in unfunded pension liability, which is more than any other state. Lawmakers must also approve a budget and meet an early June deadline to comply with a court order to legalize the concealed carry of weapons. Lawmakers are also expected to consider a gambling expansion and same sex marriage.

Cross said that unlike those other bills, the fracking legislation had bipartisan, industry and environmental support and most of it has been agreed upon. He predicted the measure would easily pass in both chambers.

“This one, there is some common ground, there’s consensus and there’s an agreement,” he said.

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