Environmental Almanac: Bill would beef up fracking regulations

Environmental Almanac: Bill would beef up fracking regulations

Say, for the moment, you're an Illinoisan who owns property under which rests a viable source of shale gas. That's the type of natural gas that's become economically viable in recent years, thanks to developments in processes and technology for high-pressure hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking. And say you're gung-ho to get your gas out of the ground and onto the market.

What stands between you and the start of your fracking operation? A two-page application and a $100 fee, payable to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR).

A bill recently introduced in the Illinois House, HB 2615, would change that.

The bill was crafted over the past eight months by a team of House members led by John Bradley, a Democrat from Carbondale, and it included Naomi Jakobsson of Urbana.

Also involved in the crafting of the bill were representatives of the oil and gas industry, as well as four statewide environmental groups: Environmental Law and Policy Center, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environment Illinois and Faith in Place. According to those groups, the regulatory framework that would be established by HB 2615 is stricter than that in effect in any other state.

I spoke recently with Brian Sauder, who is a policy director with Faith in Place, a not-for-profit that organizes religious congregations on environmental issues, and one of the four environmental representatives who worked on the legislation. He called attention to some of the key protections offered by the bill.

First among these are protections for water and air. HB 2615 requires that all of the flowback from fracking be stored in closed tanks rather than open pits, which is the norm now in states without such regulations. This drastically reduces the risks of spills, overflows and floodwater contamination, as well as other issues associated with the open storage of water mixed with hazardous substances.

The bill also protects against the pollution of water sources by stipulating practices in the construction and maintenance of gas wells, and it establishes a monitoring regime to verify that wells perform properly.

Under the monitoring regime, nearby water sources are sampled on a before-and-after basis. If new contamination is detected in post-fracking tests, the fracking company is presumed to be liable for it.

Sauder also was especially pleased with the bill's provisions for public participation in the permitting process. It enables anyone who may be affected by a fracking operation to request a public hearing on the permit for it, and it stipulates that those are "contested case" hearings.

In such hearings, parties are allowed to present evidence and cross-examine witnesses, and the proceedings are documented so they can be cited in legal appeals.Sauder noted that much of the controversy around fracking elsewhere in the U.S. has arisen where oil and gas companies are able to keep secret what chemicals they are injecting into the ground in the process of fracking.

HB 2615 would require fracking companies to disclose to IDNR a list of all substances used in fracking fluids, the formulas for those fluids and their processes. This makes that material subject to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. In such cases, the bill provides that IDNR determines which parts of this information are proprietary, not the operators, as is the case in other states.

There is, of course, much more to HB 2615 than Sauder and I discussed, from setback requirements that keep wells a certain distance from homes, schools and hospitals, to reclamation standards that establish conditions for sites after wells are taken out of operation. He said people can learn more by visiting http://www.faithinplace.org.

Environmental Almanac is a service of the UI School of Earth, Society and Environment, where Rob Kanter is communications coordinator. Environmental Almanac can be heard on WILL-AM 580 at 4:45 and 6:45 p.m. on Thursdays.

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