A groundbreaking deal to regulate high-volume oil and gas drilling in Illinois cleared a top House committee Tuesday, setting up a floor vote on a measure that supporters say would bring tens of thousands of jobs to struggling areas in the southern part of the state.
The House Executive Committee unanimously voted to send the full House a legislative proposal meant to regulate hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." A vote is expected this week, although it's not yet clear when the Senate would take it up.
Proponents have said the bill, negotiated with the help of industry and environmental groups, would establish the nation's strictest fracking regulations. Critics fear that the regulations still won't prevent water pollution and favor a fracking moratorium.
Rep. John Bradley, the Marion Democrat who sponsored the bill, labeled the agreement among stakeholders as historic before the committee approved the measure 11-0. He said its safety and environmental protections are unprecedented.
"I live in southern Illinois. I drink the water in southern Illinois. My children drink the water in southern Illinois. My neighbors drink the water in southern Illinois," Bradley told committee members. "Our first and foremost ... effort, intent in everything we did and every negotiation we had, was first and foremost that we are going to protect the ground water in southern Illinois."
Fracking uses high-pressure mixtures of water, sand or gravel and chemicals to crack rock formations deep underground and release oil and natural gas.
Should the House endorse the bill, it will then move to the Senate for consideration, where it is expected to pass. The Senate unanimously approved a lax version of a regulatory bill last year, but it was never received a House vote.
Gov. Pat Quinn, who has supported Bradley's measure throughout the negotiation process and directed agency heads to cooperate, urged lawmakers to "swiftly" approve the bill. He said it has the potential to "unlock" thousands of jobs.
Supporters of the proposal have estimated that energy companies fracturing the New Albany Shale in southern Illinois could employ up to 40,000 people.
Energy companies, which already have leased hundreds of thousands of acres in southern Illinois, have been waiting for regulatory certainty before starting to drill. But there also is nothing on the books in Illinois to stop them. Bills to establish a two-year moratorium on the practice have languished in House and Senate committees.
Among the bill's requirements is that companies disclose fracking chemicals and test water before and after drilling. It also holds them liable for contamination.
But critics say there is no scientific proof the practice can be done safely. They say it could cause air and water pollution and deplete water resources.
"It's a model for anti-scientific decision making," said Sandra Steingraber, an Illinois native and founder of New Yorkers Against Fracking.
Steingraber, who testified on behalf of the Illinois Coalition for a Moratorium on Fracking, added that the practice "turns communities into industrial zones." She said the state is in such dire economic straits that it will be unable to enforce the regulations spelled out in the proposal.
After lawmakers voted on the regulatory proposal, several of the opponents in the audience yelled, "shame, shame."
The bill is SB1715.
Contact Regina Garcia Cano at https://www.twitter.com/reginagarciakNO