PI Original Ellyn Fortino Wednesday September 3rd, 2014, 5:53pm

Environmental, Industry Groups Sound Off On Updated Illinois Fracking Rules

Progress Illinois rounds up some of the reaction to the state's recently-released rules governing hydraulic fracturing in Illinois.

Those on both sides of the hydraulic fracturing debate are weighing in on the state's updated rules governing the horizontal oil and gas drilling technology in Illinois.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) unveiled its revised rules related to the state's year-old Hydraulic Fracturing Regulatory Act last Friday before the Labor Day weekend. The department's rules were submitted on Friday to the Illinois Legislature's Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR), which has 45 days to consider the proposed regulations, but can ask for a 45-day extension. The state is up against a November 15 deadline to adopt the rules for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

While environmental and grassroots community groups are pleased that the IDNR has made important changes to the proposed regulations, they say the rules still fall short in many areas.

"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," Dylan Amlin, a leader with Fair Economy Illinois, a coalition of local community organizations, said in a statement. 

"The fines are still far, far too small to deter industry from breaking the rules," he explained. "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."

Lora Chamberlain, a Chicago field organizer with the Frack Free Illinois coalition, added that the IDNR did a "patch-up job" expanding the rules to address some of the public's worries about fracking.

"We thank them for at least considering our highly-documented and serious concerns ... but we call most of the changes that they made 'window dressing' and not substantial improvements to the rules," she said.

GROW-IL, a state-based coalition of labor, business and industry groups in support of "common-sense hydraulic fracturing legislation," is still reviewing the rules.

"Suffice it to say, it's pretty clear that the rules proposed by the department go far above and beyond what was envisioned by the General Assembly when they passed the legislation overwhelmingly," said GROW-IL's co-chair Mark Denzler, vice president and COO of the Illinois Manufacturers' Association.

Denzler noted that the Hydraulic Fracturing Regulatory Act, signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn in June of 2013, was the "strongest regulatory structure in the country" on fracking and negotiated with industry and several environmental groups.

"That speaks for itself that the intent all along was to protect the air, water and land while allowing industry to develop," he said.

Fracking is the practice of releasing Earth's natural gas by horizontally drilling with a high-pressure mixture of water, sand or gravel, and chemicals to create cracks in deep layers of shale rock.

Last fall, the IDNR released its first draft of fracking rules, which drew the ire of many environmentalists and citizens who complained that the proposed regulations would weaken a number of protections in the regulatory law. The agency spent months combing through more than 31,000 public comments before the revised rules were issued last week.

“As the agency charged with standing up a brand new regulatory program, it was important that our staff took the time needed to consider all the public feedback and do the job right,” IDNR Director Marc Miller said in a statement on Friday. “We believe the revised rules submitted to JCAR today accurately reflect the intent of the law, and take into account the concerns of our constituents.”

Although GROW-IL is happy that fracking in Illinois has reached a final hurdle, Denzler said the state's delay in implementing the rules has been "extremely frustrating."

"Companies have choices about where they want to go [and] where they want to invest their equipment," he said. "Some companies have taken their investments, and they've gone to other states because the long delay in Illinois."

Among other changes, the IDNR has expanded the rules to address radioactivity issues. Drilling fluids, cuttings, and waste from fracking operations now have to be tested for radioactivity and appropriately stored, according to the IDNR. Companies also have to submit a radioactivity management plan to the state.

Additionally, drillers cannot store store flowback material in open reserve pits for more than seven days. Environmentalists raised concerns that the regulations as previously written would have allowed companies to keep fracking wastewater in pits longer than a week. 

The IDNR has also strengthened the rules to make it easier for health care professionals treating patients to obtain information about trade secret fracking chemicals not disclosed to the general public.

As part of the changes, companies that use trade secret chemicals in the fracking process have to provide the IDNR "with a telephone number and e-mail where the trade secret holder may be reached at any time (24 hours/7 days a week)." That contact information is to be posted on the IDNR's website. 

Under the old draft regulations, one way health officials could get fracking chemical information was by calling the IDNR "during normal business hours." As the rules currently stand, the trade secret holder has up to 2 hours to provide "any properly-requested information to the health professional" in an emergency health care situation.

The revisions involving trade secret disclosure to health officials are an improvement, but still "far from adequate," said Annette McMichael with Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing our Environment (SAFE).

"If you were on a drill pad and there was an accident and you were burnt and on your way to the hospital in an ambulance, I would think you would want that doctor to know exactly what caused the burns by the time you got to the hospital, not waiting two hours," she said.

Chamberlain, with Frack Free Illinois, believes the proposed fracking regulations mostly underestimate the risk of induced seismicity in active earthquake zones.

"We are extremely concerned about the seismicity issue, and we want the Illinois General Assembly to talk to the seismic specialists themselves … not the political appointees in the Illinois Geological Survey, but the independent seismologists who have known about induced seismicity for decades," she said. "They have not done an investigation talking to the independent seismologists who are looking at this issue and have looked at this issue for years."

Southern portions of Illinois are being eyed for new fracking operations, which proponents say would create much-needed jobs and boost the state's economy.

"Southern Illinois is the area that will benefit most from these good-paying hydraulic fracturing jobs, and that's the part of the state that's suffering the most with unemployment," Illinois AFL-CIO President Michael Carrigan said in a press release from GROW-IL.

McMichael lives in Johnson County and said that area is "definitely" part of industry's fracking plan.

"As it currently stands, there is no oil drilling in Johnson County that I'm aware of, because this has not traditionally be an extraction area," she said. "We're going to be subject to something altogether new for the folks in Johnson County if we have fracking in Illinois."

Frack Free Illinois believes companies are already drilling horizontal wells in parts of Southern Illinois for low-volume fracking operations.

McMichael, meanwhile, thinks nitrogen-based fracking technology to release oil is currently being used in Franklin County.

"Instead of using a lot of water they're using nitrogen," she said. "From what we can tell, that's what's going on."

The state's regulatory law applies to fracking methods that use more than 80,000 gallons of liquid. The IDNR, however, has now expanded the rules to cover nonwater-based fracking technologies. The IDNR has also made it clear that existing fracking wells will be covered under the fracking law. 

Companies could start the application process for fracking permits later this fall if JCAR approves the rules, Miller with the IDNR told the Associated Press. Under the regulations, the IDNR has a 60-day window to review fracking permits after they are submitted.

"If the rules are approved, I would imagine that the flood gates would be quickly opened and many of these wells that are low-volume will suddenly become high-volume," McMichael said. "All hell will break loose, but we'll be ready to see what we can do to stop it."

McMichael is glad the IDNR changed provisions about where hearings for fracking permits can take place. Under the revised rules, permit hearings can be held either in the county where the drilling will occur or no more than "30 miles outside the county where the proposed well site is to be located."

"There was some mention in the last set of the rules that the permit process could actually take place in Springfield, for example, which would of course cause a hardship" for those in other parts of the state who want to respond to the permit, she said. 

Denzler, with the Illinois Manufacturers' Association, noted that all companies looking to begin high-volume fracking in Illinois will have to get a state permit.

"If you have a traditional oil and gas operator and they decide they wanted to start high-volume hydraulic fracturing, they can't simply get a modification or change their current permit," he said. "They have to go through the process, and they have to apply for a permit for high-volume hydraulic fracturing.

"There's a major difference between conventional oil and gas drilling and the fracturing occurring today versus high-volume hydraulic fracturing," Denzler added. "I think there's a lot of misnomers and scary stories out there. People say, 'Oh, they're already doing this or they just add a few gallons of water.' They are very completely different operations."

The IDNR's revised rules can be found here.

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