Illinois Natural Resources Department issues long-awaited plan to regulate oil, gas drilling

EnergyAssociated Press

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources released a long-awaited plan Friday to regulate high-volume oil and gas drilling that supporters hope could bring an economic boost to southern Illinois but environmentalists fear may be too lenient.

The lengthy report follows months of delays and complaints over the process to draft rules governing hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in Illinois. Industry officials say southern Illinois has rich deposits of natural gas, but a final draft of the rules — initially touted as a national model of both sides working together — has taken months for the agency to produce.

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A 150-page report was given to the 12-member Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, which has 45 days to act. If no action is taken, the rules can take effect.

Environmental groups, industry experts and lawmakers also got their first look at the report Friday. They expected to spend several hours, possibly days, combing through the details.

"These are highly technical rules that will require a really close look at the details," Josh Mogerman, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said earlier Friday. "Our experts are going to be spending their holiday weekend going through these rules with a fine tooth comb."

The new rules would require companies awarded drilling permits to submit lists, some of them redacted, of the chemicals used in fracking. The redacted list would be made available to the public by department and be submitted to the public health department. The industry says releasing the full list would expose trade secrets.

In issuing drilling permits, the department would be required to determine within one day whether an applicant had fully completed the necessary forms. The department would then have 60 days to approve or reject an application.

Hydraulic fracturing uses a mixture of water, chemicals and sand to crack open rock formations thousands of feet underground to release trapped oil and gas. Opponents fear it will pollute and deplete groundwater or cause health problems, while the industry insists the method is safe and will cause the same economic surge that oil booms have created in other states.

Illinois was praised last year for passing legislation seen as a compromise between industry and environmentalists on how to regulate the practice, while other states have declared moratoriums or adopted less comprehensive regulations. But the implementing rules proposed by the DNR were criticized by environmentalists as weakening the agreed-on provisions. Industry officials, in turn, said they would stall permits.

Agency officials spent months pouring over the more than 30,000 comments in response to the first draft, at the same time coming under increasing criticism by fracking supporters who had hoped that drilling would begin this summer. Backers say allowing more drilling could bring thousands of jobs to the rural area.

In May, drilling proponents' impatience bubbled over into a proposal in the Legislature to let lawmakers write the rules, but the plan never came to a vote.

The panel reviewing the rules is made up of a bipartisan group of lawmakers from the Chicago area and central Illinois tasked with evaluating state agencies' rules. It has 45 days to sign off on the suggested rules, change them or prohibit their filing. It is also allowed to ask for a 45-day extension in making its recommendations.

The department faces a Nov. 15 deadline for the rules to be established.