Illinois Natural Resources Department issues long-awaited plan to regulate oil, gas drilling

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SPRINGFIELD, Illinois — Stricter requirements for disclosing the use of chemicals are part of new proposed rules issued by the state Friday as part of the process of regulating fracking, the high-volume oil and gas drilling method that proponents hope will bring a surge of jobs to Illinois.

The highly anticipated rules, released by the state Department of Natural Resources, come after months of complaints about delays from industry officials anxious to begin hydraulic fracturing in what they say are southern Illinois' rich deposits of natural gas. The state was hailed last year for legislation seen as a model of compromise on how to regulate the drilling practice, but that cooperation broke down when draft rules were criticized by both industry and environmental activists.

State officials expressed confidence that the new rules would address all the concerns raised in 30,000 comments they received in response to those initial rules. DNR director Marc Miller said his staff had done "a thorough and thoughtful job" in crafting a balanced, 150-page report delivered to an administrative oversight committee tasked with reviewing them over the next 45 days before they can take effect.

But both environmentalists and industry officials also were poring over the report Friday, and some indicated that the battle over the regulations may not be over. Mark Denzler, chief operating officer of the Illinois Manufacturers' Association, said hopeful drillers were not happy with the requirement for more detailed disclosure of specific chemicals, which he said could threaten "trade secret protections."

"From a cursory review, there are concerns that the new rules exceed the scope of the legislation," Denzler said.

The department also clarified rules to ensure that wastewater would not be stored in open pits for more than a week at a time, which environmentalists had said would lead to contamination. And it stipulated that public hearings for fracking permits should not be held further than 30 miles from where a well site would be located.

Some environmentalists offered tepid praise for the department's attention to their concerns, while saying they would be pouring over the new rules over the next few days.

"The agency clearly paid attention to some of the public comments that were out there, but given the technical nature of things it remains to be seen if those issues are fixed," said Josh Mogerman, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Hydraulic fracturing uses a mixture of water, chemicals and sand to crack open rock formations thousands of feet underground to release trapped oil and gas. Opponents fear it will pollute and deplete groundwater or cause health problems, while the industry insists the method is safe and will cause the same economic boom seen in other states such as North Dakota. They warned that Illinois risked losing out on a bonanza as the months went by while the DNR crafted the rules.

Miller, the DNR director, said he was "optimistic" the state could now meet a Nov. 15 deadline for the rules to be in place. He noted that the agency has hired 24 of 53 employees it needs to issue permits, inspect wells and perform other tasks associated with the anticipated influx of drilling activity. The Associated Press reported last month the agency had hired only four workers at that time.

The bipartisan panel reviewing the rules has 45 days to sign off on the suggested rules, change them or block them. It also can ask for a 45-day extension in making recommendations.

If the committee signs off on the plan, Miller said drillers could begin applying for permits later this fall. Permits, according to the rules, must be approved within 60 days.

If the panel rejects the rules, Miller said, the department would begin another lengthy hearing process.


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