Illinois fracking hops final hurdle – Regulations approved Thursday

Anti-fracking advocates line up outside the Michael A. Bilandic building to protest the Joint Commission on Administrative Rules, which approved regulations for hydraulic fracturing on Thursday.
Demonstrators who oppose fracking line up outside the Michael A. Bilandic building in Chicago to protest approval of regulations that open the way for hydraulic fracturing. Michael Epstein/MEDILL

Fracking could begin in Illinois as early as February after regulations governing the process were approved Thursday.

The Illinois Joint Commission on Administrative Rules approved a finalized version of the regulations governing hydraulic fracturing at a meeting at the Michael A. Bilandic building in Chicago. The commission’s consent and finalized regulations opens the way for the Department of Natural Resources, which governs fracking, to accept applications and issue permits for energy companies to implement the controversial process.

“In this case, I think the department tried to strike a balance between the industry advocates who want to commence fracking and environmental advocates who are concerned about the consequences,” said commission Co-Chair Don Harmon, a State Senator (D-39th) who supported a ban on hydraulic fracturing. “I think the final ruling will displease both groups in equal measure, which is usually the sign of a successful legislative effort,” he said.

The process of setting regulations for fracking extended debate on the contentious practice since before Illinois passed legislation to allow fracking in 2013.

Industry advocates claim that the state’s tough regulations will limit the financial boom that the energy industry could bring to the state. Environmental activists have fought tooth and nail to prevent fracking, citing the potential impact on the state’s water supply and risk of earthquakes.

Caught in the middle, the Department of Natural Resources has been responsible for creating rules to regulate fracking.

The Joint Commission on Administrative Rules ensures that all rules generated by government agencies adhere to the letter of the law and the last bureaucratic force that could compel changes before the regulations are finalized. The commission deferred action on the regulations in October.

Without regulations in place, the Department of Natural Resources cannot issue permits, which has essentially barred companies from moving forward on fracking operations.

According to Illinois Manufacturers’ Association Vice President Mark Denzler, the changes in the updated regulations passed Thursday include a re-defined understanding of environmental harm and increased fines for water contamination and other environmental damage.

Based on the currently available regulations, companies will be required to document every facet of the process during the application process, including what chemicals they use and how much goes into the mixture they inject into the ground. Denzler described the final rules as “the strictest statute in the country, bar none.”

Environmental advocates and anti-fracking opponents are convinced that the process leads to destabilization along the New Madrid fault line, risking possible earthquakes and untold damage across the state.

“These guys just voted for reckless endangerment in Illinois,” said Dr. Laura Chamberlain, lead organizer for Frack Free Illinois. Chamberlain believes the committee should have added language that would force companies to suspend drilling under even the slightest sign of seismic activity.

The final regulations will be published in the Illinois state register on or before the November 15 legislative deadline. Companies must register 30 days before submitting an application for a permit, which must be approved or rejected within another 60 days. Companies who begin the process immediately after the department begins registration could apply for a permit as soon as December, and the 60-day period would open the door for fracking to begin as soon as February.