Pumping large amounts of water mixed with chemicals and sand underground to extract oil and natural gas could create thousands of jobs in Illinois and produce a tax windfall for the state.
Or, doing that could lead to polluted water supplies, divert water from agricultural uses, and even risk triggering earthquakes.
Proponents of hydraulic fracturing, commonly called fracking, adhere to the former and want the state to adopt uniform standards that will promote the practice in Illinois.
Opponents believe the latter is a more likely outcome. They are calling for a statewide moratorium on fracking until a task force can be appointed to study the issue.
It will be up to the General Assembly to decide what the state does.
“All of the stakeholders are at the table,” said Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion, who is spearheading talks on a fracking bill in the House. “We’ve been negotiating in earnest for the last few weeks. We’ve made significant progress.”
Bradley said he believes fracking will benefit the state, both by bringing in new revenue and because “it will allow for creation of much-needed jobs.”
That could be particularly true for far southern parts of the state, which have been hit hard by job losses for decades. The New Albany shale formation, the key target of fracking operations, runs though southeastern Illinois and parts of Indiana and Kentucky.
A study backed by the Illinois Chamber of Commerce said as many as 45,000 jobs could be created if Illinois adopts clear standards for fracking. The industry does not want different regulations enacted by local communities.
“I think there is general agreement that some sort of regulatory framework is beneficial,” said Sen. Mike Frerichs, D-Champaign, who has pushed a fracking bill for 2 years.
“The industry is also aware that if there are no regulations in place, there might be a patchwork of individual [regulations] springing up, and that they think that would be detrimental to its growth.”
“It requires huge investment,” Bradley said. “In order for the process to begin, I think there’s a desire that there be some certainty that it won’t be stopped at some point.”
However, the concept of maintaining local control is important to Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing our Environment (SAFE), a group that wants to slow down the fracking movement. SAFE’s Annette McMichael said the group wants a 2-year moratorium on fracking so a task force can study the process. Sen. Mattie Hunter, D-Chicago, has introduced a bill on SAFE’s behalf.
“For 18 months, I’ve been getting complaints from environmentalists who have been complaining about fracking and that it causes all kinds of problems,” Hunter said. “I think we need more information and research.”
Mark Denzler of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association disagrees. The IMA is part of Grow-Illinois, a group of business and labor organizations that is promoting fracking.
“With all due respect, we don’t think a study is needed,” Denzler said. “Hydraulic fracturing has been occurring for about 12 to 14 years around the country. We think we can look at what other states have done.”
Or maybe not. The Sierra Club has been involved in the Illinois talks about fracking.
“In looking to other states that have had fracking happening for some time, unfortunately we have not found any other state that has managed to put in sufficient protections,” said club director Jack Darin. “Certainly some states have gotten some pieces right, but no one state has gotten a comprehensive framework.”
The Sierra Club supports Hunter’s bill, Darin said.
“There’s a lot of merit [that] we should proceed very slowly here,” he said.
Denzler estimated that the talks “are about 90 percent of the way there.”
“We hope there is an agreed bill,” he said.
“Our goal is, first and foremost, to protect drinking water,” Bradley said. “Both sides have moved, and both sides have made concessions. The thought is we all want it done in a responsible manner.”