Last week, the state reached a noteworthy milestone in efforts by energy companies to use high-volume hydraulic fracturing to access oil and natural gas reserves far beneath the Southern Illinois landscape.
Today, more than 400 days have passed since state lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a bill governing the use of the controversial energy exploration process. That approving vote, 160 to 17, was followed by Gov. Pat Quinn signing into law Senate Bill 1715 -- the Hydraulic Fracturing Regulatory Act -- on June 17, 2013.
Although it remains bitterly opposed by some environmentalists, the new state law was hailed as both the nation’s toughest and critical to efforts to revive the slumping economy of Illinois, which has the nation’s highest rate of unemployment. It was enthusiastically supported by our region’s statehouse delegation and local elected officials, who contend it will create jobs and spur economic development across Southern Illinois.
Great energy potential is seen in the New Albany Shale, which spans much of southeastern Illinois -- from Mattoon on the north to Harrisburg on the south. As we reported last week, one study predicts the new industry could have a $9.5 billion impact on the region and produce upwards of 45,000 jobs annually.
Critics scoff at those numbers as exaggerated, but even a percentage of the projections would be welcome in our job-deprived region. Wouldn't you prefer 50 percent of an overblown prediction to 100 percent of nothing?
There were hopes of the work beginning earlier in the year, but the resulting job creation and financial shot in the arm are stalled in the ponderous effort to draft administrative rules. Supporters of hydraulic fracturing now are accusing Quinn and the Illinois DNR of intentionally dragging their feet so green-minded voters in Chicagoland don’t punish the embattled incumbent in the Nov. 4 vote.
It’s time to release the brakes. An unreasonably long delay will cause the energy companies to look elsewhere for a green light on fracking -- perhaps in nearby and more business-friendly Indiana, which also straddles the New Albany Shale.
State Rep. Brandon Phelps, Marion Mayor Bob Butler and Herrin Mayor Vic Ritter acted in the best interests of their communities, the region and the state when they joined industry, trades and business leaders in calling for action in a Tuesday press conference. We support their request for prompt completion of the administrative rules and the resulting go-ahead on tightly controlled, responsible and environmentally aware hydraulic fracturing.
It is not an untested technology. More than a decade of experience and technological advancements were taken into account when the state law was created through teamwork between environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, lawmakers and industry leaders.
Environmental protection was stressed throughout the drafting of the law. Energy companies are presumed to be at fault in the event of any spills of the fluids used for fracturing bedrock. That's an important safeguard. Enclosed storage is required for all fluids and emergency open pit storage can be used for no more than seven days before heavy fines are levied. That's another key safeguard. A minimum of 50 percent of the fracturing jobs must be filled by Illinois residents. And the lands used for fracturing must be restored to their original, pre-drilling conditions.
There is no valid reason to further delay completion of the administrative rules or the hiring of staff to ensure oversight and compliance. With all due respect, we ask Gov. Quinn to put the heat on the IDNR brass and seek the kind of quick turnaround given the equally tricky process of creating administrative rules for medical marijuana.
Quinn signed the marijuana measure into law less than a year ago, on Aug. 1, 2013. About a week ago, the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules approved the rules for the "Medical Cannabis Pilot Program" from the Departments of Agriculture, Financial and Professional Regulation, Public Health, and Revenue.
If that same pace had been followed on rule making for hydraulic fracturing, there already would be more jobs, more money in circulation and greater reason to expect an improved regional economy. But all we have now are hopes a great opportunity doesn’t go up in smoke.