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Proposed Illinois 'fracking' rules released to public

Published: Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013 12:18 a.m. CST

CHICAGO – The Illinois Department of Natural Resources published a first draft of Illinois’ rules for high-volume oil and gas drilling on Friday, and environmental groups quickly criticized them as violating the spirit of regulations that industry, environmentalists and lawmakers crafted together.

The state’s hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” regulations were hailed as among the toughest in the nation when they were signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn earlier this year. The DNR, which will enforce them, must adopt rules to reflect the law, and will seek public feedback until Jan. 3.

But the proposed rules appear to undercut some key protections in the law, said Ann Alexander, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Midwest program, who participated in negotiations.

For example, the law requires that wastewater be kept in tanks, rather than open pits used in some other states, but allows emergency overflow into reserve pits. But the proposed rules do not specify how companies should calculate the size of the tanks they’ll need, and allows overflow to be removed seven days after fracking is completed, rather than seven days after it occurs – which Alexander called an “incentive for industry to try to make routine use of the dangerous open-air pits, under the guise of emergency use.”

Industry officials said they want to ensure the rules reflect what was agreed upon, adding that they have their own concerns about some language in the rules. That includes how to determine who may request a public hearing on a permit application.

“Our concern is that this has opened it up to where even someone from out of state could ask for a hearing based on opposition to fossil fuels,” said Brad Richards, executive vice president of the Illinois Oil and Gas Association.

Even so, the proposed rules are a good start, and “I think throughout the process that things will be ironed out,” so that fracking can begin next year, said Mark Denzler, vice president of the Illinois Manufacturers Association.

Fracking uses a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals to crack and hold open thick rock formations, releasing trapped oil and gas. Combined with horizontal drilling, it allows access to formerly out-of-reach deposits. Industry is eyeing the New Albany Shale formation in southern Illinois, where they hope that significant oil deposits lie 5,000 feet or more below the surface.

The industry insists the method is safe and would create thousands of jobs. Opponents say it causes water and air pollution and permanently depletes freshwater resources.

Until now, Illinois had no regulations governing fracking. The new rules will include requirements that oil and gas companies test water before, during and after drilling, and hold them liable if contamination is found after drilling begins.

Alexander said the DNR has moved too quickly to write rules for something as important as fracking, and said it will “take a huge amount of work” to fix them. She’s also concerned that public feedback is being gathered during the holiday season, when many people might not be paying attention.

“This whole process is a speeding train,” she said.

DNR spokesman Chris McCloud said the agency “took as much time as it possibly could, as much time that was needed,” and can change the rules if needed before they’re finalized.

The agency will hold two public hearings: Nov. 26 in Chicago and Dec. 3 in the southern Illinois town of Ina, in Jefferson County. People may also submit written comments.

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