Proposed rules for hydraulic fracturing in Illinois fell under harsh scrutiny Tuesday night, as the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) hosted its first public hearing on draft regulations before the controversial horizontal oil and gas drilling technology comes to the state.
“I know that we need natural gas, but we need to do this in the safest way possible so that we’re not killing ourselves,” said Jessica Bryant, a representative of Greenpeace, in her speech before the panel of five IDNR representatives.
Bryant was one of more than 250 people to attend Tuesday’s meeting at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the first of five public hearings on the state's draft fracking administrative rules.
“There are about a million fracking wells nationwide. Industry itself has admitted that at least 5 percent of those wells have failed, in case you’re not good at math, that’s 50,000 wells ... What are the chances you live close to one of those wells,” asked Bryant, pointing out that the cement casing in the wells could leak, causing the water and chemicals used in fracking to leak and contaminate groundwater.
Following the IDNR’s release of the first draft of the Hydraulic Fracturing Regulatory Act administrative rules on November 15, there is a 45-day public comment period, which ends January 3. The agency will review the comments and respond to each one before submitting a revised draft of the rules to the Illinois General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR) for a 45-day review. The general assembly's committee has a final say on the rules.
Most of the speakers argued that the first set of draft rules weaken key provisions in the regulatory bill meant to safeguard against risks, including soil and groundwater contamination and air pollution.
Dr. Lora Chamberlain, an organizer for Stop the Frack Attack on Illinois, decried what she considered a softening of the chemical disclosure protocol. The law requires drillers to reveal fracking chemicals to local health professionals. But companies can redact certain chemicals categorized as trade secrets and, under the draft rules, physicians and emergency personnel could only get that information by calling the driller directly or the IDNR during standard business hours and providing proof that the disclosure is necessary for the treatment of an affected patient.
“It is absolutely unconscionable that we are forcing our ER physicians and our emergency personnel to track down the frackers,” said Chamberlain.
Here’s more from Chamberlain and other speakers at Tuesday’s public hearing:
Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," releases Earth’s natural gas by horizontally drilling with a high-pressure mixture of water, sand or gravel, and chemicals to create cracks in deep rock layers.
The IDNR opened registration for individuals and firms interested in applying for hydraulic fracturing permits in October, but no drilling permits will be issued until the administrative rules are approved by JCAR.
According to lawmakers, the bill could create up to 47,000 jobs in Illinois and carries the nation’s strongest environmental protections, according to the bill's proponents. But not everyone buys those claims.
“Many of us know that hydraulic fracking is an inherently unsafe and toxic technology ... And you cannot regulate your way out of it,” said Linda Lewison, a member of the Sierra Club Illinois Nuclear Free Committee, during Tuesday’s meeting. “We cannot use jobs as a cover for safe water, air and food.”
Other draft rules that drew the ire of speakers include “minimal” fines for violations and "weaknesses" in protections against pollution, including allowing wastewater to be temporarily stored in open-air pits rather than closed, sealed tanks during instances of unanticipated overflow.
"For the law to work it needs strong rules to enforce it," said Jack Darin, director of the Sierra Club, Illinois Chapter. "We need the department to go back to the drawing board, sharpen their pencils, and make the key changes that will make these rules as strong as they can be."
Here’s more from Darin:
Several of the speakers also criticized the department for hosting a public comment session during a holiday week. Almost every speaker called on the IDNR to expand the public comment period and host more than five public hearings.
"I would like to request that there are additional hearings," said Bryant. "I hope there are more, especially considering it is a day-and-a-half before Thanksgiving and people are planning their family get togethers. And I would love it if there was one in Bloomington as well, because Bloomington has a huge population and I'm sure would love to be represented on this issue."
In addition to Tuesday's meeting in Chicago, the IDNR is hosting four additional public hearings on the draft fracking administrative rules throughout December. A public hearing will be held at 6:30 p.m. in Ina on December 3; in Effingham on December 5; in Decatur on December 17; and at 6 p.m. in Carbondale on December 19.
People who are unable to attend a public hearing can submit comments via mail to the agency's headquarters in Springfield, or through an online form. The IDNR is accepting comments until January 3.
"There are a lot of risks from fracking and we wish that fracking had never come to Illinois, we would still support a moratorium," said Darin. "I don't think any regulations are going to be strong enough to guarantee us that this dangerous technology isn't going to cause harm ... But that doesn't mean we shouldn't do whatever we can in the face of the threat, and that's what we're calling on Illinois to do today."