Last week, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) released draft rules that will regulate hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, but environmental groups aren’t pleased with the proposed regulations. They believe the draft rule contradicts the letter of the law or, in some cases, goes against the spirit of the state’s recently passed Hydraulic Fracturing Regulatory Act.
When Governor Pat Quinn signed the fracking law over the summer, it was hailed as the one of the most comprehensive fracking laws in the country. The oil and gas industry worked with environmentalists to hammer out the law, but now that they’ve seen the draft regulations, nobody is particularly happy.
Ann Alexander with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Chicago helped write the legislation, and she thinks the draft rules fly in the face of the letter of the law. She said one provision gives healthcare providers access to trade secret-protected chemical information in case of an accident, but the draft rule doesn’t provide a sensible way to get that info.
“The ambulance driver arriving at the scene can either call the department (IDNR) during normal business hours, which really doesn’t help anybody if the accident happens not during the hours of nine to five, or it says they can call the trade secret holder,” Alexander said. “But it doesn’t say how they find out who the trade secret holder is. There’s just no way to know.”
Environmentalists say the draft rules weaken a provision that presumes fracking companies are liable if a nearby water source becomes contaminated. They also say the regulations do not adequately address the use of carbon dioxide or nitrogen gas as a base instead of water in fracking operations.
Jennifer Cassel with the Environmental Law and Policy Center believes the rule kills one of the law’s strengths -- the provision that flowback or produced water be held in air-tight closed containers. The waste water is full of chemicals, oil, gas and other contaminants.
“We know there have been circumstances where those ponds overflow in storms,” Cassel said. “Those ponds, like any other sort of pond or impoundment, can leak. They can leach. They can have structural issues where it could cave in.”
Under the proposed rules, Cassel says energy companies can store waste water in open air pits if there is an unforeseen volume of it for up to seven days after the end of fracking operations.
“So essentially they’re allowing fracking companies to underestimate the capacity that their tanks may need, thus requiring the need for these pits. And then they’re letting folks keep waste water in the pits for far longer than the seven days written into the law,” Cassel said.
Brad Richards, the executive vice president of the Illinois Oil & Gas Association, said he does not see where that argument is coming from.
“Everybody knows what the legislative intent was, and the regulations seem to follow that,” Richards said. “I think there were environmental groups that were perhaps surprised that we ended up with an agreed bill and some of those folks seem to be trying to maybe revisit issues.”
Richards is pretty pleased with the draft regulation but he, too, has concerns, especially if public hearings and comments are required for each well site.
“The big issue in my mind is, will that just gum up the works? These companies need regulatory and permitting certainty. If each of these kind of devolve into a circus, this development will not happen,” Richards said.
It has taken two years to get to this point in the regulatory process, Richards said, and it will probably take another year before the first well is fracked. Richards believes that lengthy timeline could hamper Illinois’ competitiveness to attract energy companies.
“First and foremost, the regulations are very difficult. That is at the top of the list. But secondary to that, and very tangible in its own right, is this growing perception that Illinois is not a particularly friendly place to come and drill an oil well,” Richards said.
None of this sits well with local environmentalists in southern Illinois, who feel betrayed by groups like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council for agreeing to the fracking legislation in the first place instead of supporting a moratorium.
“The people, the families that are going to be most affected by this have not had an opportunity to speak to the people that are making the decisions. It makes me very sad to think what this country’s come to if we can’t even have local control or some voice in what’s going on,” McMichael said.
The IDNR has scheduled five public hearings about the fracking regulations. McMichael and other environmentalists hope to inundate the department with comments before the public commenting period ends on January 3.