What's the rush?
Implementing a revolutionary process of energy exploration has proved to be an elusive dream in Illinois.
In June 2013, when the General Assembly passed a hydraulic-fracturing bill, the legislation was lauded as one that imposed tough regulation on this energy exploration method but one that would generate thousands of jobs, particularly in economically depressed southern Illinois.
Nearly 14 months later, nothing is happening, a reality that has prompted a coalition of labor and management groups to complain about what looks to be an unnecessary delay.
"If Illinois doesn't get its act together, companies are going to decide to invest elsewhere, and we're going to miss the boat," said the Illinois Petroleum Council's Dan Eichholz.
Unfortunately, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources' response was to state that regulatory officials don't expect to release the final rules until mid-November. This is a complicated business. Still, one would think that a state that desperately needs jobs, investments and the tax revenue they generate would see the benefits of moving faster.
Mark Denzler of the Illinois Manufacturer's Association said that as of today (Tuesday) "it will be 400 days, and we've yet to see a final set of rules," calling it "an extraordinary length of time."
There may be more involved than traditional bureaucratic inertia. There's a political overtone as well.
Gov. Pat Quinn is in the midst of a re-election campaign, and he needs campaign support from the very people most opposed to fracking because of what they claim is a threat to the environment.
The issue, however, cuts more than one way. Gov. Quinn called the legislation a "shot in the arm for many communities." Those communities might look more favorably on Quinn's re-election effort if his fracking bill put some of their residents to work.
Hydraulic fracturing — nicknamed "fracking" — is a technique designed to recover gas and oil from shale rock. It is a process of drilling down into the earth — both vertically and horizontally — before a high-pressure water mixture is directed at the rock to release the oil or gas inside. It allows drillers to dig down to levels previously unreachable, and it has revolutionized the energy industry in the United States.
The state of North Dakota is perhaps the best known example of the abundant supplies of oil and gas that can be reached and the economic activity that can be generated. But a number of states are benefitting from fracking.
What that portends for Illinois is impossible to say. Analysts have suggested fracking would generate $9.5 billion in economic activity and produce up to 47,000 jobs in southern Illinois. It would be prudent to take those estimates with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, energy companies are eyeing the New Albany shale formation on the theory that there are significant oil reserves 5,000 feet or more beneath the Earth's surface.
This is a potentially big deal, not a case of fools rushing in where angels fear to tread. Illinois' fracking law is the product of lengthy negotiations between environmental and business groups. The safety measures included in it have been described as the toughest in the nation.
Still, some outliers from the environmental movement oppose any fracking, no matter how tough the regulations. That's why opponents were pushing a moratorium of at least two years when the bill was passed and signed into law.
They lost the legislative fight. But fracking opponents are winning the war as a de facto moratorium will be in place as long as the Natural Resources Department drags out an implementation process that should be complete. The people of Illinois — particularly hard-pressed residents down south — deserve better.