CHICAGO — Environmentalists want to lift a cap on fines for violations, while industry officials want to limit who can ask for a public hearing as each side prepares for their last shot at changing proposed rules governing high-volume oil and gas drilling in Illinois.
As Illinois moves closer to allowing hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," within the state's borders, proponents and critics are poring over extensive rules developed by the state Department of Natural Resources to see if they address concerns or add any unexpected twists.
A law passed last year was seen as a national model of compromise on how to regulate the controversial practice, but both advocates and opponents since have been critical of the rule-making process. Industry officials have complained bitterly of what they consider the slow pace, warning that it could cost the state jobs.
Hydraulic fracturing — a drilling method that has become big business in states like Pennsylvania and North Dakota — 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. The industry insists the method is safe and will bring a badly needed economic boost to southern Illinois.
Illinois' rules, meant to implement regulations passed by lawmakers last year, were submitted Aug. 29 to a legislative committee that now must decide whether they can take effect as written.
Here are some of the lingering concerns and a look at what happens next:
The DNR reworded some rules after receiving more than 30,000 comments on a draft it released late last year.
Among the changes, the agency clarified that companies must be available 24 hours a day to divulge the chemicals they're using to health care workers treating patients. Companies typically claim their mixtures are trade secrets, and the DNR received complaints that the original draft made it too difficult to get the information quickly.
Language was changed to specify that any wastewater overflow stored in pits during an emergency must be removed from the pits and stored in closed tanks within seven days. The DNR also agreed that the new rules apply to existing oil and gas wells.
Although environmentalists say the DNR generally did a thorough and thoughtful job of revising the rules, there still are things they don't like. Same with the industry.
Drilling advocates, for example, wanted to "limit the universe" of people who could ask for a public hearing on a permit to those who were directly affected by it, said Brad Richards, executive vice president of the Illinois Oil and Gas Association. But the DNR did not tighten the language on that issue, saying it can adequately prevent problems.
"We say if there's a hearing for every permit application, that just does not work for large-scale development," Richards said. "We don't want someone from out of state to be able to say they're worried about polar bear habitat based on ... global warming."
Industry also worries about language that says the DNR can consider the cumulative impact of multiple wells on health and the environment when it decides whether to issue a permit to a single well. That was not in the legislation passed by lawmakers, said Illinois Manufacturers' Association Vice President Mark Denzler.
But Ann Alexander, a senior attorney at the Environmental Law & Policy Center, says the DNR has a duty to account for anything that poses a significant risk, including multiple pollution sources.
"It's the only sensible approach," she said. "If you're fracking all over the southern part of the state, you really can't evaluate risk in a vacuum."
Environmentalists are disappointed that the DNR did not address how liquid that comes out of fracking wells must be tested.
They're also concerned that, although the agency increased fines for violations, it capped the total amount that companies can be fined. As a result, companies could regard fines as simply a cost of doing business, Alexander said.
The General Assembly's Joint Committee on Administrative Rules has 45 days —until mid-October — to review the rules and either approve them, reject them or ask for changes. That timeline can be extended by another 45 days if the panel feels it needs more time.
The committee will begin hearings on the revised rules Sept. 16. Both sides plan to submit comments in the hope of last-minute changes.
Industry expects that the rules will be adopted, but not in time to begin fracking this year.
Even if the committee approved the rules in October, companies first must register with the DNR, then wait 30 days to apply for a permit. The DNR has up to 60 days to approve a permit.
"There's no possible way we could do it this year," Denzler said.