SPRINGFIELD -- The sponsor of a bill to regulate high-volume oil and gas drilling in Illinois said there still is time to pass the measure this spring, even though it was delayed in a House committee Thursday while industry and unions negotiate hiring requirements in a last-minute amendment.
Drafted with the help of environmental and industry groups and lauded by Gov. Pat Quinn as a job creator, the bill was expected to be voted out of the House Revenue & Finance Committee on Thursday. But the vote was delayed because Rep. John Bradley, the Marion Democrat who helped broker the compromise bill and heads the committee, introduced an amendment that would require energy companies to hire a state-licensed water well driller.
Ed Maher, spokesman for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150, said the requirement would create jobs, but also would help ensure that drinking-water aquifers aren't contaminated during hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," a process that uses high-pressure mixtures of water, sand or gravel and chemicals to crack rock formations and release oil and natural gas.
The amendment would allow companies to hire any Illinois-licensed water well driller for the first three years. But after that, the contractors would have to go through a licensing process that includes extensive training, Maher said.
Illinois Oil and Gas Association officials said the amendment, as proposed, is unacceptable. Energy companies long have drilled in Illinois without such requirements, and water pollution issues already were addressed in the proposed regulations, said Brad Richards, the association's executive vice president.
"No offense to the (licensed water well drillers), but what are they going to bring to the oil well-drilling process?" Richards said. "I would prefer a moratorium," to the amendment.
Senate and House bills that would impose a two-year moratorium on fracking also did not get votes in their respective committees.
Lawmakers and industry officials in an earlier amendment already worked out fees and extraction, or "severance," taxes that drillers would pay the state.
Although the new amendment came as a surprise to the bill's supporters, several said the effort to pass it and begin fracking this year is not over.
"I think we'll get there," said Illinois Petroleum Council Executive Director Jim Watson, adding that the delay gives all sides "a couple of weeks' cooling off process."
Bradley said the amendment was meant to ensure local workers were hired for jobs, and that fracking is done safely.
"It's a big bill. It's got a lot of pieces," Bradley said. "We want to make sure we get it right."
Although bills technically were supposed to move out of committee this week, Bradley said lawmakers will "figure out a way to get it moving ... we've got time."