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updated: 3/12/2013 9:17 PM

Fracking opponents rally at state Capitol

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Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD -- Environmentalists and land owners rallied Tuesday against a proposal that would jump-start hydraulic fracturing in Illinois, saying the drilling practice -- known as fracking -- is unsafe and requires further study.

The bill is among the strictest in the nation but was written with help from the oil and gas industries, which have been seeking certainty in the law before investing too heavily in the practice.

Fracking uses high-pressure mixtures of water, sand or gravel and chemicals to crack deep rock formations that then release oil and natural gas. Bruce Ratain, of advocacy organization Environment Illinois, and others are seeking a two-year moratorium on the practice. Ratain said that would allow for more environmental and health impact studies as well as for advances in drilling technology that might ease problems.

Some land owners say they were ignored during the negotiations in which the fracking regulatory bill was crafted and fear their communities' water could be polluted and that fracking could cause earthquakes.

Tabitha Tripp, who lives on 10 acres in Union County, was upset that her legislators supported the fracking proposal.

"I have a home, a well and two kids, and all it would take is one spill and I would lose everything," Tripp said. "That's why I'm here. It's important that the people that represent us in the Illinois congress know that we are awake and are aware and we don't want this going on in southern Illinois."

Ratain said fracking has been "a rolling environmental disaster" in other states. He said Illinois' proposed new regulations -- while tougher overall than those in other states -- don't include provisions that environmentalists and land owners consider essential, including keeping control of fracking activities local, banning the use of toxic chemicals and requiring drilling sites be farther from residential areas.

Even so, he understands why some environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, helped write the regulations.

"At the same time as we're idealistic, we're also pragmatic," he said. "The worst thing for Illinois would be the status quo, with no regulations or restrictions whatsoever."

The regulatory bill, introduced two weeks ago by Rep. John Bradley, a Marion Democrat, was drafted with the help of the oil and gas industry, some environmental groups and lawmakers, and has been touted as among the toughest in the nation.

The protesters Tuesday said their efforts were raising awareness about the issue, but legislative measures introduced in the House and Senate to establish a moratorium have almost no traction compared with the widespread backing for the bill authorizing the practice.

Each moratorium bill has fewer than five sponsors, while the regulatory proposal has more than 50. Rep. Kelly Cassidy, who co-sponsored the delay but now supports the regulatory measure, said getting strong regulations like those contemplated in the House proposal "is the best next thing."

"I can appreciate that the folks who are here today, they want nothing but a moratorium," said Cassidy, a Chicago Democrat. "But the reality is, under current Illinois law there's no regulation, they (energy companies) could be doing anything, and there aren't 60 votes to pass a moratorium."

Lawmakers also attempted to move a moratorium bill during last year's session but it was not approved.

But the lure of jobs -- as many as 40,000, by one estimate -- in Southern Illinois may be too much for lawmakers to pass up.

Leases already have been signed on hundreds of thousands of acres in Southern Illinois, where studies have suggested the New Albany Shale, roughly 5,000 feet below the surface, may hold significant gas and oil reserves.

The House Revenue and Finance Committee is scheduled to discuss the measures Thursday. Hunter's Senate moratorium bill will be heard Thursday in the chamber's Energy Committee.

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