Illinois residents get one last chance tonight to speak out in a public forum about new rules on fracking in the state. These regulations are in response to legislation signed over the summer to regulate high-volume, horizontal hydraulic fracturing. It's a process that involves pumping large amounts of chemicals and water deep underground to release oil or natural gas. Supporters say fracking will bring much-needed jobs to Illinois, while critics argue the costs far outweigh any benefits.
IPR's Sean Powers reports:
(singing ..There ain't no freaking frackin' in this town. When they come and start to drilling...")
A public forum hosted by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources is about to get underway at the Decatur Civic Center in Macon County. Hundreds of people from all over the state are here to make their case against fracking. Just before the meeting starts Braze Smith, an organic farmer in Southern Illinois, stands with a group of other members of Illinois People's Action, a group calling for a moratorium on fracking.
(singing....living in a fracked up wonderland." (chuckles)
Moments later, the meeting starts...and the arguments against fracking pile up - one man complains about the amount of water used, another lists the harmful health effects of chemicals involved in the fracking process, still another demands tougher penalties against companies that violate fracking rules. When it's Braze Smith's turn to step up to the microphone, he worries about another potential side effect - earthquakes.
"You guys are going to punch holes in one of the most seismic hot spots, areas in the country. That to me...that's like Bugs Bunny when he comes up to that big red button that says do not push, that's DNR walking up to it and pushing it."
Bob Bauer with the Illinois State Geological Survey says there's no direct connection between fracking and earthquakes. He says earthquakes have been linked to wastewater disposal, which is the water that comes up after the hydraulic fracturing process. He says Illinois' recent fracking law signed over the summer specifically addresses seismic activity.
"There are guidelines if earthquakes are felt, reducing pressures for the fluid that's going underground. So, there's a thing called a traffic light, which goes from green to yellow to red that dictate felt events, and what has to be done associated with those different scenarios."
The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, doesn't want to see fracking in Illinois, but it acknowledges that it's here to stay and supports the state's regulatory law. Ann Alexander, a senior attorney with the group, says some of the rules outlined by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources undercut protections in the bill. For example, she says the drafted regulations do a good job requiring companies to store fracking wastewater in tanks, rather than open pits that can leak....but there might be a loophole....
"There was a provision for emergency situations where there was an overflow and you can put it in a pit, but that was only supposed to be used in an emergency. The way the department drafted the regulations makes it much easier for drillers to potentially use the quote unquote emergency storage pit routinely."
The proposed rules require oil and gas companies to inspect water quality, and hold them accountable if there's contamination...proposals Alexander says don't go far enough. She also says local communities should have a say over how fracking happens in the state.
"There may be some communities who are not satisfied with the 500 foot setback from schools that's required in the law, and they may very reasonably want a thousand foot setback or a 15-hundred foot setback. We think they should be able to do that."
But the Illinois Chamber of Commerce says allowing communities to hold hearings on fracking could be expensive for the state and turn off some drilling companies, a potential loss of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars. Tom Wolf is the Executive Director of the Chamber of Commerce's Energy Council.
"We did a study with Illinois State University about a year ago, and they came back with a range of a thousand jobs over five years to 45-thousand jobs over five years."
One of the companies paying close attention to Illinois' new rules on fracking is Colorado-based Strata-X Energy. It's begun the process of Horizontal Hydraulic Fracturing in Clay County in south central Illinois. Right now, that project is small enough that new rules for high volume fracking wouldn't apply, but the company still has to follow other oil and gas drilling regulations in the state. But C-E-O Tim Hoops says the company could ramp up operations.
"If the regulations get so onerous, we can't make the same sort of return that we could in North Dakota where we got a fabulous player and down in Texas where we also have an outstanding play, we'll redeploy capital. Even though we've spent probably close to $10 million dollars already in Illinois, if it becomes too onerous we'll move elsewhere and Illinois will suffer from it."
Back at the public forum in Decatur, Braze Smith, the organic farmer, says there's more at stake here than jobs and money.
"You know, DNR and government in general, you have been provided with an impossible task, and that task is to make this process safe. If you look at the science - what's happening all over in Romania, Pennsylvania, and New York, and Texas - there is no safe for fracking."
Strata-X Energy and other companies are going to have to wait on final regulations. Illinois Department of Natural Resources spokesman Tim Schweizer says he's received about 25-hundred comments on the proposed rules. He says the department will submit its final draft to a legislative committee for approval. But there's still time to comment.
"It's very likely that there will be changes in the proposed regulations before they're finally implemented. That happens all the time in the formation of state regulations, and we expect it will in this."
The final public forum on Illinois' rules for fracking is tonight in Carbondale, but anyone can comment on the Illinois Department of Natural Resources' website until January 3rd.
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