ST. LOUIS -- The Illinois Senate unanimously signed off on a measure Thursday that would regulate debated technology used to reach previously inaccessible natural gas reserves deep underground, a method that worries some environmentalists because of possible pollution from mixtures of water, sand and chemicals.
The Senate's 54-0 passage of the bill addressing hydraulic fracturing -- commonly called fracking -- comes amid reports that energy companies are in a torrid push to explore possible drilling sites in southern Illinois, long known for its rich below-ground coal and oil reserves.
Now headed to the state House, Senate Bill 3280 would allow the state's Department of Natural Resources to regulate hydraulic fracturing that cracks open fissures in southern Illinois' roughly 4,500-foot-deep New Albany Shale and other formations to get to trapped oil and natural gas. The legislation also would require energy companies to disclose the chemical makeup of the fracturing fluids and to test the integrity of the cement and steel well casings meant to protect groundwater during drilling.
In hydraulic fracturing, which has been around for decades, millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are pumped into wells to break up underground rock formations and create escape routes for the oil and gas. In recent years, the industry has learned to combine the practice with the ability to drill horizontally into beds of shale, layers of fine-grained rock that in some cases have trapped ancient organic matter that has cooked into oil and gas.
By doing so, drillers have unlocked natural gas deposits across the East, South and Midwest that are large enough to supply the U.S. for decades. Natural gas prices have dipped to decade-low levels, reducing customer bills and prompting manufacturers who depend on the fuel to expand operations in the U.S.
Yet environmental groups and other critics believe the chemicals have polluted drinking water supplies. The industry says there's no proof of that.
It's unclear how productive any drilling would be in southern Illinois' New Albany Shale region, but the clear interest in prospecting that land drove state Sen. Michael Frerichs, an east-central Illinois Democrat, to introduce the regulatory measure that advanced Thursday.
Frerichs said the legislation seeks to ensure transparency and accountability in how companies ultimately deploy in Illinois the technology already used elsewhere, "not to shut down the emerging industry."
"There clearly is a rush right now to buy up or lease ground (in southern Illinois) for this opportunity," the lawmaker from Gifford said in advance of Thursday's vote. "This has been something that's been getting a lot of attention in the northeastern Midwest, and some of that attention has spilled over into Illinois. We thought we should be proactive rather than reactive" with getting some regulation on the books.
The measure was panned Thursday by Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing our Environment, a grassroots group that wants fracking outlawed in the region until all of the environmental ramifications are sorted out.
"I think it's a very weak bill that does nothing to protect the people of Illinois," SAFE's Chuck Paprocki said. "I don't see anything in his bill that would hold the oil companies accountable."
Countered Frerichs: "I think no piece of legislation makes everyone happy. (But) I think we've struck a nice balance between the concerns of environmentalists and new industry."
Jack Darin of the Illinois Sierra Club considers the measure a good start in "coming up with one of the key safeguards," setting standards for well casings while mandating that drillers reveal to the DNR the chemicals they use.
But Darin believes Illinois lawmakers in May should build upon the legislation with provisions addressing emissions from such wells, the possible effects on state lands, "and other pieces that need to be put in place to prevent the messes made in other states" where hydraulic fracturing is allowed.
"It's a very unusual situation -- often in policymaking, we're reacting to a problem to clean up a mess or stop pollution that's already happened," he said. "We have the benefit of looking at other states' experiences about what problems occurred and what solutions they put in after the fact. We can put those in virtually from day one.
"We're very concerned because no state has gotten it right yet in comprehensively protecting water and air supplies. Illinois has a chance to do that," he added. "It remains to be seen whether fracking can be done safely. The industry has not shown that yet."