Recently, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) issued revised rules to regulate high-volume horizontal fracturing for oil and gas, or “fracking.” The Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR) is now considering IDNR’s proposal, and the stakes couldn’t be higher for the health of Illinois residents facing threats to their drinking water, air, and communities.
It falls to Illinois and other states to protect themselves from the dangers of fracking because, during the Bush-Cheney administration, the oil and gas industries were exempted from basic clean water, clean air, and other environmental laws. That means that there is no basic level of protection for states to build on when it comes to fracking, despite its unique risks to public health.
Fracking in other states has been linked to a wide range of health concerns from respiratory problems to skin rashes and other medical problems, including birth defects and lower birth weight. The threats from fracking include drinking water contamination, and increased levels of air pollution, including methane, which is a powerful contributor to climate change. No current technology has been shown to eliminate leakage of methane from wellheads. Fracking has also been linked to earthquakes and major impacts on rural communities, such as added costs to the public because of the damage to infrastructure, demand on health facilities, and increased crime.
Illinois now finds itself targeted by the oil and gas special interests that want to bring this dangerous practice to the Prairie State. Sierra Club and thousands of citizens across the state advocated for a moratorium on fracking in Illinois, to allow us to learn from experiences in other states, and emerging health research. We oppose fracking in Illinois, and have long held that a moratorium on fracking is the safest and best approach, considering the pollution and social problems associated with fracking in other states.
Unfortunately, the General Assembly, so far, has not approved a moratorium on fracking, and the risky practice has been legal for decades under Illinois law. While work to stop fracking continues, it is essential that IDNR adopt the strongest possible protections for the rural Illinois communities in grave danger. IDNR’s first draft of fracking rules, proposed in 2013, prompted an unprecedented outcry from thousands of Illinois citizens who demanded that IDNR go back to the drawing board to fix major problems with their first draft. To their credit, IDNR has responded to comments on their first draft of rules by improving many provisions of the rules as requested by citizens. Significant changes include giving the public a greater voice in permitting decisions that affect them, efforts to close potential loopholes that could allow unregulated fracking, and making it clear that if a clean water well becomes dirty after fracking, fracking is presumed at fault. IDNR is not only within their statutory authority to propose these changes, it is also their mandate to do so as stewards of our land, air, and water.
The revised second notice draft includes many critical improvements that have come under attack by industry. Industry’s push to weaken the revised rules underscores our concern and opposition to fracking in Illinois. Big oil and gas companies clearly value their profits over the health of Illinois citizens, and now they are trying to force through shoddy regulations with a political power play. The General Assembly rejected a similar attempt to silence the public in May, and JCAR’s response to the attack by industry should be the same: allow the professionals at IDNR to listen to the public.
The changes proposed by IDNR are not only crucial for protecting citizens. IDNR’s amendments, and also further improvements, are also necessary to meet the minimum standards in the state statute. JCAR’s responsibility is to ensure that rules comply with the law. Sierra Club urges JCAR to ensure that the Revised Administrative Rules on Hydraulic Fracturing will not be weakened, and make these additional changes:
• Eliminate arbitrary caps on administrative penalties that unnecessarily limit potential fines on those who would cut corners and jeopardize our health.
• Ensure that criminal penalties may also apply, as specified by the Act
• Make clear that all permit suspensions go into effect immediately to protect public safety.
• Set a maximum 21 day time limit for operators to notify the Department of a change in a permit application; to ensure ample time for Departmental consideration of that information.
• Eliminate a potential two-hour delay for medical personnel to obtain industry chemical information; a two-hour delay could be a death sentence to a person having a health crisis from toxic chemicals. Potential confusion and time wasted should be remedied by requiring immediate response from a knowledgeable source, such as a 24/7 poison control center.
• Specify that drill cuttings need to be tested for contamination, including for oil-based mud and polymer based mud, radiation and toxic chemicals prior to storage.
• Inspection of storage tanks and reporting of corrosion should be increased to at least once a month due to the toxic nature of the tanks’ contents. Semi-annually is not adequate.
Legislators on JCAR will act on IDNR’s proposal by November 15th. It is critical that legislators reject the latest power play by oil and gas lobbyists to gut IDNR’s proposed rules. Big oil’s attempt to bully Illinois into deleting key public health protections is a clear warning of the risks ahead to Illinois as corporations target the Prairie State, and it must be defeated. It is also crucial that JCAR insist on further improvements in IDNR’s draft, especially regarding enforcement.
Finally, we urge IDNR to ensure that no fracking permits are considered or granted until all of the engineers, inspectors and enforcement personnel are hired and trained to enforce these rules. IDNR was right to halt fracking permits while these rules are under development, and that pause should remain until the strongest possible rules are in place, along with the professionals to enforce them.
Sierra Club is opposed to fracking and believes no amount of regulation can make this dangerous practice safe. We also believe that Illinois citizens deserve a voice in permitting decisions that will affect them and their ability to hold accountable those who would poison our air and water. We call on JCAR to reject the oil and gas industry’s attempt to gut the protections proposed by IDNR, and push for the strongest possible regulations on this dangerous practice in order to protect the citizens of Illinois. Our work for an energy future beyond fossil fuels will continue, including an Illinois without fracking.