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Illinois edges closer to endorsing gas fracking

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Lawmakers in Illinois could sign off on legalizing fracking as early as this week, but approval of the highly controversial drilling method won't come without a fight.

Despite a last-ditch effort from opposition forces inside and outside the state, Illinois' Democrat-dominated state government is poised to become the latest to embrace the fracking boom.

The state House could vote as early as this week on legislation to regulate the drilling process that is also being hotly debated in New York, California and elsewhere. A key House committee unanimously approved the bill earlier this month, and the state Senate also appears ready to clear it.

Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, has indicated he'll sign the measure. He's the latest high-profile governor in his party to embrace fracking, taking a page from the playbook of former Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and others.

The practice — the use of sand, water and chemicals to break apart underground rock and release trapped oil and natural gas — already is widely used in those states and in many others.

Proponents in Illinois say they've been able to learn lessons from the experiences of Pennsylvania and others. One is to give each side in the debate a seat at the negotiating table.

Supporters of fracking say Illinois has spent years weighing the pros and cons of the process, and that leading environmental groups — usually the loudest opponents of fossil fuel development — have played a significant role in the discussion.

"The legislation in Illinois has been the result of about three years of discussion. The mainstream environmental groups here are supporting the legislation," said Mark Denzler, vice president and chief operating officer of the Illinois Manufacturers' Association, a trade group and vocal supporter of the pending fracking bill.

Indeed, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and other environmental groups support the regulation package.

But that's only because, in lieu of an outright ban or moratorium, Illinois would be in a position to become the only state to allow virtually unregulated fracking. The Chicago Tribune reports that landowners in southern Illinois, where the vast majority of fracking would take place, already have begun to sell drilling rights to oil and natural gas companies. Such sales or leases typically are an immediate precursor to fracking.

"The best protection is not to frack at all ... we still would like to see a moratorium in place to give the state an opportunity to fully evaluate fracking," said Henry Henderson, the NRDC's Midwest Program director, in a recent blog post on the group's website. "But should the moratorium not pass, this state simply must have rules in place to protect its citizens immediately."

Meanwhile, anti-fracking forces from Pennsylvania and elsewhere also are jumping into the fray, urging Illinois leaders to take more time to study the drilling method.

"If you allow fracking to go forward as planned, you will bring to your state the same horrific experiences we have suffered in Pennsylvania," reads an open letter signed by about a dozen Pennsylvanians and addressed to Mr. Quinn and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. It claims that Pennsylvania has seen widespread illness, water contamination, air pollution, increases in crime and a number of other side effects from fracking.

The oil and gas industry vehemently denies those charges, which are frequent claims by those opposed to fracking.

In fact, claims of water contamination by some of the signatories to Tuesday's letter have been disproved by further scientific analysis by state officials.

The dire predictions from Pennsylvania likely won't change the larger debate in Illinois. Mr. Quinn and other state leaders continue to push fracking as a job-creation program, and opponents within the state admit any remaining hope for a moratorium is slipping away.

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