By Mike Bryson, editor
Less than a week after the International Panel on Climate Change issued its latest summary report on global warming and its present and future impact upon the earth’s ecosystems and economies, a group of Illinois legislators called the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR) approved a thrice-revised version IL’s fracking regulations — a key step forward in ushering oil and gas fracking operations into southern Illinois next year.
The irony of this timing was not lost on many observers, both within and beyond the state’s borders, who rue Illinois’ further commitment to extreme fossil fuel extraction methods in downstate rural communities and perhaps even the expansive Shawnee National Forest, even as climate scientists warn that increasing global greenhouse gas emissions pose an imminent threat to terrestrial and marine ecosystems, regional economies, the world’s biodiversity, and human health.
The politics of fracking in Illinois have themselves been highly fractured, with government leaders and labor unions generally supporting it as an anticipated economic boom; oil and gas executives eager to establish operations and take part of the US fossil fuel boom; mainstream environmental (aka “Big Green”) organizations trying to ensure that when the seemingly inevitable fracking begins, it has to abide by stronger regulations than exist in other states; and a wide and active coalition of grassroots environmental groups and activists who insist that fracking is inherently unsafe, advocate an outright ban on its practice, and resent the compromises forged between Big Greens and the oil/gas industry prior to Illinois passing its fracking law back in the summer of 2013. A legislative push in the spring of 2013 to pass a bill banning fracking in IL failed to muster enough support to merit its introduction to the floor for a vote.
As reported previously on this blog, once the IL General Assembly passed its law allowing fracking to occur within the state, the IL Department of Natural Resources was required to develop rules and regulations that would apply to and enforce the new law. These regulations went out for public comment in November of 2013 and generated an overwhelming and largely negative response during the public commenting period, including a state-record 30,000+ written comments and over 1,000 citizens attending several public hearings held across the state in late 2013. (The number of written comments alone exceeded, by far, all the previous written comments submitted to the IDNR in the agency’s entire history.) Many comments noted that the regulations watered down parts of the law and contained numerous deficiencies that would favor industry at the expense of environmental safety and human well-being.
In response to these comments and to its credit, the IDNR staff took several months to revise and in many cases improve or strengthen the regulations and released the 2nd version at the end of August 2014. These were then sent to the JCAR, an appointed committee of six Republicans and six Democrats from the IL General Assembly, who had until Nov. 15th to make a decision and presumably could consider public input in the process (though no public forums or well-publicized communications channels were provided for the public to do so).
In the meantime, fracking played a role in the recent gubernatorial race between incumbent Democrat Pat Quinn, who signed the fracking bill into law in 2013 but was still cast as a foot-dragger on the issue by eager oil and gas companies; and the eventually winner, Republican Bruce Rauner, who received hundreds of thousands of campaign donations from the oil and gas industry and who has pledged to vigorously support the start of fracking operations in the state. Meanwhile, fracking advocates who felt as though the IDNR’s revised regulations were too restrictive and cumbersome reportedly put pressure on the JCAR to approve — and possibly even revise — the rules.
One day after Quinn conceded defeat to Rauner, the JCAR announced that it had approved the IDNR regulations by a vote of 9-0, with one abstention. If any changes occurred to the IDNR publically-available document, they happened in closed-door meetings, a prospect which has sparked the ire of the state’s anti-fracking activists, including Illinois People’s Action and Southern Illinoisians Against Fracturing our Environment. These recent proceedings are summarizing in this blistering commentary by environmental historian and journalist Jeff Biggers.
More will be revealed on Nov. 15th, the deadline for releasing the JCAR-approved rules and regulations, which will be published officially in the Illinois Register.
Mike Bryson edits the SUST at RU Blog and has been its primary contributor since June 2012. Along with Carl Zimring and Brad Hunt, he co-founded the Sustainability Studies program at Roosevelt during the 2009-2010 academic year. An Associate Professor of Humanities and Sustainability Studies at RU, Bryson’s courses include SUST 210 The Sustainable Future, 220 Water, 240 Waste, and 350 Service & Sustainability.