State records indicate that high-volume oil drilling already has begun in Illinois, where lawmakers and others are scrambling to pass a bill to establish regulations for a practice that has generated intense national debate as energy companies push into new territory.
Carmi.-based Campbell Energy LLC submitted a well-completion report last year to the Department of Natural Resources voluntarily disclosing that it used 640,000 gallons of water during hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," of a well in White County. A regulatory bill awaiting a vote by state lawmakers -- but not yet written at the time the well was drilled -- defines "high-volume" as the use of 300,000 gallons or more of fluid during all stages of fracking.
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The report was obtained by the Natural Resources Defense Council, which shared it with The Associated Press. Phone calls to the company on Tuesday seeking comment were not immediately returned.
DNR Director Marc Miller acknowledged that the well would qualify as high-volume under the proposed legislation, but said that his agency would not have checked the volume in the report when it was filed last June because there was nothing on the books to define high-volume fracking. What's more, companies currently are not required to tell the DNR what method they use to extract oil and gas when they apply for a permit or when the well is finished, but Campbell included that information anyway.
And though the DNR does not know of any other wells that would meet the proposed definition of high-volume, there's no way to know for sure if there are more.
"This (illustrates) the crux of why we need to have regulations as proposed for hydraulic fracturing," Miller told the AP. "We need to have the regulatory tools before they start drilling to understand what" they are doing.
Fracking uses high-pressure mixtures of water, sand or gravel and chemicals to crack rock formations deep underground and release oil and natural gas.
Proponents say it's safe and could bring tens of thousands of jobs to southern Illinois. But others fear it could pollute and deplete water resources, and favor a proposed two-year moratorium that has gotten little traction in the Legislature.
Industry has said drillers are holding off on high-volume fracking in Illinois until they get regulatory certainty, but there technically is nothing to stop them.
And it's unclear how long they would be willing to wait, said Ann Alexander, a senior attorney with the NRDC's Midwest program who helped negotiate Illinois' proposed regulations. If lawmakers fail to pass a bill this spring, "I would venture a bet that (industry's) concern would go from regulatory uncertainty to increasing certainty that Illinois is not getting its act together."
Illinois' proposed regulations, written with the help of industry and environmental groups, would be the strictest in the country and include requirements that companies disclose chemicals they use and test groundwater before and after fracking. It also would hold industry liable for contamination. The legislation represented an unusual level of cooperation over how to proceed with a practice that has been halted elsewhere by emotional protests.
The bill passed a key House committee but has not yet been called for a vote in the full House. It would then need passage in the Senate and the signature of Gov. Pat Quinn, who has been a strong supporter.
Environmentalists who helped write the regulations said they preferred a moratorium, but it was clear that lawmakers wanted to pass a regulatory bill instead, so they worked to get the strongest regulations possible. But support is not unanimous: Other environmental groups and southern Illinois property owners have mounted a vigorous campaign to defeat them.
Brad Richards, vice president of the Illinois Oil and Gas Association, said he wasn't surprised to learn of the Campbell well but stressed that the company did nothing wrong. And although the volume of fluid it used was a lot compared with what has traditionally been used in Illinois -- the typical "frack" has been 100,000 gallons or less -- it pales in comparison to states like North Dakota and Pennsylvania, where it's not unusual for drillers to use 2 million to 8 million gallons of fluid in a well, he said.
Companies are eyeing the New Albany shale formation in Illinois, which lies 5,000 feet or deeper below the surface. Richards said they likely will use far more fluid than Campbell Energy did in the White County well, where it was fracking in a shallower formation. But he doubts companies will be willing to spend a lot of money in Illinois without regulations.
"We should all be able to agree: Go ahead and let's get the bill passed," he said.