SPRINGFIELD -- Illinois' powerful House speaker said Wednesday that he supports a moratorium on high-volume oil and gas drilling, weighing in on the issue one day before a House committee is scheduled to consider competing bills involving the practice.
It was unclear how much sway that Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, would have over lawmakers' decisions, especially since more than 50 House members already have signed on to a bill that would regulate hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" -- the key to jump-starting the practice in Illinois. Some suggested his comments might be meant to pressure industry over drilling fees and taxes.
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But environmentalists and landowners, who rallied at the Statehouse this week to urge lawmakers to impose a moratorium, said they welcome the support.
"We take the speaker at his word and hold him to it that he recognizes a moratorium as the only true way to protect public health and the environment from the rolling environmental disaster that fracking has been," in other states, said Bruce Ratain, state policy associate with Environment Illinois. "This is what real leadership looks like."
Madigan, who introduced a failed drilling moratorium last year, would not elaborate except to say, "read about what happened in Pennsylvania." The issue there has become controversial, including over water quality near drilling sites.
Fracking uses high-pressure mixtures of water, sand or gravel and chemicals to crack rock formations and release oil and natural gas. Industry insists it can be done safely; opponents say it can cause air and water pollution and deplete water resources.
Last month, Rep. John Bradley, a Marion Democrat, introduced a regulatory bill touted as among the toughest in the nation and drafted with the help of the oil and gas industry, some environmental groups and lawmakers. Two Chicago Democrats -- Rep. Deb Mell and Sen. Mattie Hunter -- have introduced bills in their respective chambers that would impose a two-year ban on the practice. Opponents say that would allow time for more environmental and health impact studies as well as for advances in drilling technology.
The regulatory bill would require oil and gas companies to test water before and after drilling, hold them liable for contamination and require disclosure of fracking chemicals as well as air and water pollution controls. Madigan's office helped negotiate and draft the bill.
Gov. Pat Quinn has called the legislation a "jobs bill." Studies have estimated up to 40,000 jobs could be created in southern Illinois, where energy companies are eyeing the New Albany Shale, a formation roughly 5,000 feet below the surface.
Industry, lawmakers and the governor's office have been negotiating how much money energy companies would pay to help support a regulatory program, and how much they might pay in extraction, or "severance," taxes. Illinois currently does not impose taxes on coal, gas or oil extraction.
But high-volume drilling has not yet begun in Illinois, so that offers a chance for the state to make some money from the outset if the regulatory bill is passed. Many other states have imposed similar taxes on fracking, and Madigan last year floated the idea of a 12 percent extraction tax, though those involved in negotiations say that number has since been whittled considerably.
"Madigan's office ... has made sure that a very tough regulatory bill was produced," said Allen Grosboll, a legislative director at the Environmental Law and Policy Center. "On the other hand, the speaker continues to wield the threat of a moratorium and in doing so, I think he is ensuring ultimately agreement both about tough regulations and about revenue."
Mark Denzler, vice president of the Illinois Manufacturers' Association, said he was surprised that Madigan endorsed a moratorium. He said such a ban, even if temporary, "would jeopardize the compromise we reached, as well as revenue and jobs for Illinois."
Denzler said a tentative deal was reached Wednesday on fees and taxes, and he expected them to be included in an amendment to the regulatory bill.