Statehouse Considers Natural Gas Regulation As Frac Fight Looms

By Chris Bentley in News on Dec 8, 2012 10:00PM

The Illinois Manufacturers’ Association hosted Governor Pat Quinn at their annual meeting and luncheon Friday, hoping to ply support in an impending political battle over hydraulic fracturing in the state. Protestors picketing outside also wanted to tug Quinn’s ear, but the governor sidestepped the coalition of environmental organizations and made it into downtown Chicago’s Four Seasons Hotel without entering the fray.

Quinn nonetheless finds himself between a rock and a hard place, as pressure mounts on both sides of the controversial fossil fuel extraction technique known as fracking. A state bill introduced this week (SB 3280) calls for a moratorium on fracking — the practice of blasting water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to knock loose oil and natural gas from underground rock formations — at least until June 2013.

While some environmental organizations doubt that the process can ever be made completely safe, a temporary stay on fracking seems more politically feasible than an outright ban. Energy companies have already spent about $100 million and leased up to half a million acres in Illinois. Almost two thirds of the state sits atop the fossil fuel-rich Illinois Basin and New Albany shale formation.

The fracking boom has moved west from Pennsylvania, where lax regulations have been blamed for myriad health problems and drinking water contamination, and New York, whose governor suddenly reversed an apparently pro-drilling course and opted for further study on the issue in September.

Illinois is in a unique position among the many states that have grappled with the issue. In addition to its fossil fuel reserves targeted for fracking, the state also has sand perfectly suited for fracking — a market that has brought the frac fight to states without fracking prospects. Earlier this year LaSalle County voted to allow a sand mine near Starved Rock State Park. Universal standards for monitoring and regulating the process do not exist, and a cash-strapped state Department of Natural Resources would likely find it difficult to enforce rules on an industry prone to explosive growth once it is allowed.

The decline of coal has brightened prospects for alternative energy sources, including renewables, and municipal electricity aggregation in Chicago could further improve that picture locally. Illinois actually dug up more coal last year than in 2010, despite national declines in coal production and consumption. In Chicago, however, Mayor Rahm Emanuel apparently hopes to negotiate an electricity contract that burns little or no coal. But natural gas and nuclear power are well-established in Illinois, worrying some environmentalists that those sources will win out in a post-coal power vacuum.

“I think we’re just trading coal for fracking,” said Dr. Lora Chamberlain, an activist with Protect Chicago’s Water who waited for the governor outside the Four Seasons Friday. “We’re taking two steps forward and two steps back.”