Illinois House OKs bill to regulate hydraulic fracturing

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — The Illinois House overwhelmingly approved a plan Thursday that would regulate high-volume oil and gas drilling in the state, hoping to kick-start an industry that proponents say could bring thousands of jobs to economically struggling southern Illinois by filling the gap created by the area’s declining coal industry.

The measure passed 108-9 and headed to the Senate, where it was expected to pass.

Illinois’ regulatory bill, drafted with the help of industry and some environmental groups, has been touted as one of the toughest in the nation. But while supporters say hydraulic fracturing would generate tens of thousands of jobs, opponents — fearful that it could cause pollution and deplete water resources — have been pushing for a two-year moratorium to allow more time to study health and environmental issues.

Hydraulic fracturing uses high-pressure mixtures of water, sand or gravel and chemicals are used to crack rock formations deep underground and release oil and natural gas.

Among the provisions in the proposed regulation are requirements that drillers publicly disclose the chemicals they use and that they test water before and after hydraulic fracturing. They also would be liable for any water pollution.

“This bill is not about a choice about fracking in Illinois or no fracking in Illinois,” said a bill sponsor, Democratic Rep. Ann Williams of Chicago. “It is about fracking with no regulation or fracking with the strictest laws in the country.”

Energy companies are eyeing the New Albany shale formation in southern Illinois, where they believe there are significant oil reserves at depths of 5,000 feet or more.

“It has the potential for creating a long-term stable revenue source for the state through the extraction fee,” said Rep. Rep. John Bradley, the Marion Democrat who headed the bill’s negotiations. “And it has the potential to filling a gap downstate, which has been there ever since the coal mines, the coal industry waning back in the 60s and 70s.”

Although the measure was supported by more than 50 House members who signed off as sponsors of the bill, its road to a full vote in the House was not easy. A set of rules requiring energy companies to hire a state-licensed water well driller delayed the vote for more than a month.

Two bills proposing a moratorium were offered, but none has gained traction despite the endorsement of the state’s powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat.

Opponents also say the proposed regulatory legislation would leave Illinois communities with no control over the practice. Activists against the bill had coordinated intense lobbying efforts.

After the vote, Sandra Steingraber, an Illinois native and founder of New Yorkers Against Fracking, yelled: “This bill is a betrayal to democracy … this bill is a betrayal to the children of Illinois.”

She was removed from the chamber by two guards.

Gov. Pat Quinn has praised the measure as a jobs bill and was swift praise lawmaker’s vote.

“This legislation will unlock the potential for thousands of jobs in southern Illinois, while ensuring that our state has the nation’s strongest environmental protections in place for this industry,” he said in a statement.

Ann Alexander, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council who helped craft the regulations, said she is glad the House “recognized the overwhelming need” for regulations if the state is moving forward with fracking.

“While we said all along that it would have made sense to pause and take breather… at very least we’re glad Illinois is moving forward with the kind of public protections that are desperately needed.”