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Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014 12:01 am

Illinois DNR revises fracking regulations

Energy industry and environmentalists dissatisfied with changes

 State regulators have released new regulations for a highly controversial oil and gas extraction technique. Environmental groups in the area that will be affected say the new protections aren’t enough, while energy companies say the new rules are too burdensome.

The Illinois General Assembly in June 2013 passed a law allowing high-volume hydraulic fracturing, which involves pumping millions of gallons of water, chemicals and sand deep underground to fracture shale formations and release trapped pockets of oil and natural gas. Nicknamed “fracking,” the process may generate billions of dollars for oil and gas companies, as well as for state coffers. It also has potential to harm the environment, prompting environmental groups to fight for stringent regulations before the state begins issuing permits.

Responsibility for the rules falls to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which already oversees oil and gas extraction. IDNR issued draft rules in November 2013, and environmental groups in southern Illinois immediately flooded the agency with comments meant to delay the passage of the final rules. On Aug. 29, IDNR  released its revised rules, along with more than 300 pages of response to the comments.

The revised rules address several issues known among environmental groups as the “Dirty Thirty” – 30 rules that environmentalists believe are too lenient or otherwise problematic. Among those rules were provisions imposing relatively small penalties for breaking the law and giving final say on fracking to municipalities but not to county boards in rural areas.

IDNR’s changes to the rules include strengthened disclosure of chemicals used in fracking, increased public comment opportunities for each proposed fracking permit, tougher requirements for radioactivity testing and storage of wastewater, and more.

Fracking has been a point of contention in the Illinois environmental community, with groups in southern Illinois claiming that statewide groups based in Chicago bargained with the oil and gas industry without consulting those who would actually be affected. Although fracking could happen in most of Illinois, it will likely be concentrated in southern Illinois, which has the greatest density of oil and natural gas wells, and where mineral rights to numerous parcels of land have already been leased in anticipation of a fracking boom.

Dylan Amlin a leader in activist group Fair Economy Illinois, says the revisions were a good start, but additional changes are needed to protect the environment.

 “Although there were a handful of significant improvements to the rules based on citizen comments, the overarching problem remains that the punishment for violating the rules doesn’t fit the crime,” Amlin said. “The fines are still far, far too small to deter industry from breaking the rules. If business can simply absorb the costs of breaking rules as a part of doing business, the health and safety of Illinois citizens and our environment are still in jeopardy.”

William Rau, professor emeritus of industrial sociology at Illinois State University in Bloomington and a member of activist group Fair Economy Illinois, went as far as saying the rules ought to include felony criminal charges for certain violations.

“Without further changes in the rules, frackers can deliberately commit serious crimes against people and the environment anticipating at worst a slap on the wrist,” Rau said.

Mark Denzler, vice president of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association and a co-chair of the pro-fracking group GROW-IL, says Illinois already has the toughest fracking regulations in the country – a point which environmentalists dispute. He says energy companies estimate it will take them seven years to recoup their initial investment under the increasingly stringent rules.

“Illinois has already lost jobs and tax revenue because of the extreme delay, and these new rules threaten future economic development in an area of Illinois with extremely high unemployment,” Denzler said.

IDNR’s revised fracking rules now await approval by the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, a panel of state legislators. JCAR must adopt the rules by Nov. 15, 2014, or the process starts over. To read the revised rules and public comments, visit www.dnr.illinois.gov.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.


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