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Elizabeth McCarthy/MEDILL

Wayne County is one of the primary areas for oil and gas drilling in Illinois. This well, owned by Woolsey Operating Company, could eventually be used for high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking."

Illinois launches hearings on controversial proposed fracking regulations

by Elizabeth McCarthy
Nov 26, 2013


Elizabeth McCarthy/MEDILL

Richard Straeter of Woolsey Operating Company, which has leased approximately 200,000 acres of land in Illinois for oil and gas development.

Related Links

Read IDNR's fracking rules and submit public comments online

Public hearings launch tonight at UIC on proposed fracking regulations in Illinois

Tuesday, November 26, 2013. 
6:30pm-8:30pm (Doors open at 5:30pm) 
University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC)
 726 S. Halsted Street, Student Center East, Room 302
Chicago, IL 60607


Tuesday, December 3, 2013
6:30pm-8:30pm (Doors open at 5:30pm) 
Rend Lake College Theater
468 North Ken Gray Parkway
Ina, IL 62846


Thursday, December 5, 2013
6:30pm-8:30pm (Doors open at 5:30pm)
 Holiday Inn Effingham, Hotel Ballroom
 1301 Avenue of MidAmerica 
Effingham, IL 62401


Tuesday, December 17, 2013
6:30pm-8:30pm (Doors open at 5:30pm)
 Decatur Civic Center, Auditorium
#1 Gary K. Anderson Plaza 
Decatur, IL 62523


Thursday, December 19, 2013
6:00pm-8:00pm (Doors open at 5:00pm)
 Southern Illinois University at Carbondale (SIUC)
 Student Center, Ballroom B
1255 Lincoln Drive 
Carbondale, IL 62901 

Both industry and environmental groups are unhappy with the newly-released proposed rules to control hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas in Illinois.

Draft regulations to safeguard against water and soil contamination, air pollution, and other safety risks have just been issued by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Public hearings on the draft  rules launched Tuesday night at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The draft rules propose regulations for this process of extracting oil and natural gas from deep underground by breaking bedrock with a high-pressure mix of water and chemicals to release energy deposits. The state legislature approved fracking in Illinois with a bill passed in June, touted as being one of the most stringent in the country.

But, some environmental groups are critical with IDNR’s rules because they say many of them undercut some of the most important provisions the groups fought for during negotiations.

“I just really feel that the DNR is rushing this,” said Brian Sauder, policy director at Faith in Place, an environmental group that was at the table during the negotiations of the bill. “Why not take a few more months to get these right, and make sure the rules adequately reflect what the statute put in place?”

"Our people worked around the clock to develop them," said department spokesman Chris McCloud. "In terms of timing of them, I think that really depends on who you talk to. There are some folks that believe that we didn't take enough time to draft the rules, and then there are other folks that think we took too long.

Sauder said one concern is that the legislation provides for wastewater from fracking to be stored in holding tanks, but companies may store wastewater in lined pits in emergency situations for up to seven days.

However, according to Jenny Cassel, an attorney with the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center, the rules propose that wastewater can be stored in pits for up to seven days “after fracking operations are complete,” which could actually be significantly longer than a week. Additionally, the rules do not require applicants to accurately calculate the capacity of their holding tanks.

“There are a number of significant risks and environmental problems that are created by keeping this water in pits as opposed to closed tanks, as the law calls for,” Cassel said.

These problems include the possibility of overflow in storms, structural issues that could cause leaking or leaching into soil and groundwater, and air pollution due to offgassing – the evaporation of volatile chemicals found in oil.

However, Brad Richards, executive vice president of the Illinois Oil and Gas Association said that storing the wastewater in lined pits is safe and common practice in other states.

“Illinois will be, I believe, the only state in the country where closed tanks are required. I think every other state is able to flow back into a lined pit. And frankly we should be able to, too,” Richards said.

It only takes a couple days to hydraulically fracture a well, he said, and that any issues with this rule can be addressed in the public comment period.

Companies take safety very seriously according to Richard Straeter, district manager for Wichita-based Woolsey Operating Company, which has leased about 200,000 acres of land in Illinois for oil and gas development.

“Liability costs money,” Straeter said. “We’ve got to do things right.”

The critical elements for properly regulating fracking, according to Richards, who also helped negotiate the bill, include well construction standards, the transportation and disposal of frack fluid and chemical disclosure. The industry balks at chemical disclosure, however, because companies consider their particular mix of chemicals to be proprietary information and part of their competitive strategy.

While these elements are addressed in the bill, other groups at the table had their own set of priorities for the legislation. The Illinois Farm Bureau, for example, fought for the interests of the farmers on whose land, leased by the energy companies, much of the drilling will take place. They ultimately supported the bill that passed this year.

“We're concerned about the dirt and restoring the land so we can farm on it,” said Laura Harmon, assistant general counsel for the Illinois Farm Bureau. She said drilling companies have largely been responsive to farmers’ needs, but the leases are always one-sided before negotiations, so they wanted to legislate some protections.

“Certainly I've talked to farmers that wish they hadn't signed leases,” Harmon said.

Environmental groups fought for their priorities, including provisions for the prevention of water pollution, public participation, transparency – including chemical disclosure, and the presumption of liability in case of contamination of areas surrounding a drilling site.

The presumption of liability means if elevated pollution levels are found within 1,500 feet of fracking operations, it is presumed that the fracking caused the contamination. The burden is on the company that owns the fracking operation to prove they did not cause the contamination, relieve nearby residents of a potentially long and expensive process.

IDNR’s rules, however, limit this provision, according to Cassel, by severely restricting the number of chemicals that can be considered “indicator chemicals,” or those that would prove contamination.

Environmental groups are also unhappy with how the chemical disclosure rule was drafted. Cassel said they and many of the legislators were adamant that there be a provision for health workers to get chemical information, even when protected by trade secret, where it is needed to treat a patient.

“DNR has done multiple things wrong here,” said Cassel. “First, they decided that they have discretion as to whether they will provide that information,” which, she said, is contrary to the law. “Second, the way they’re proposing to get that information to health workers is totally unfeasible.” The health worker can only call IDNR during business hours, or can call the “trade secret holder” – but no information is provided on who that is or how to contact them.

The public comment period is designed so both residents and organizations can have their say on issues such as these. 

Once the public comment period is closed, the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, a legislative committee, must ultimately approve them. The process will be lengthy. Estimates put it at next summer when IDNR will actually be able to begin issuing permits for fracking in the state.

"Unfortunately there's just too many variables that can change between now and whenever that can alter the timing of it," McCloud said. "So it would be very hard to take a guess as to when permit applications may be available."

Until then, companies like Woolsey can’t do much but lease land and wait, said Straeter. And even then, the industry is concerned about the strict regulations.

“Are those 130 pages going to be so expensive to comply with and so cumbersome to comply with, will companies like Woolsey, at the end of the day, be able to make money?” asked Richards. “That question remains to be answered.”

However, environmental groups and others worried about the safety of the process want to make sure IDNR fully addresses those concerns in the rules before the state is opened up to fracking.

“We think they’re probably getting a lot of pressure from industry to move this forward,” said Cassel.

They do not want to see the industry rush in at the expense of comprehensive, thorough regulation.

“There’s no way Faith in Place would’ve supported the statue if we had know these would’ve been the rules,” said Sauder. “These rules do not reflect what we worked on in the legislative process.”

The IDNR is accepting public comments on the proposed rules until Jan. 3, 2014, and public hearings will be held throughout the state. 

As to the numerous calls to extend the public comment period and add public hearings: "It is set in statute how long people can submit comment. The agency doesn't have the ability to just say 'yes, we are going to extend the comment period,'" McCloud said. "If the agency decides to add public hearings then we would make the public aware of those hearings, but as of this time I don't believe any additional hearings are being planned."