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Editorial: ‘Fracking’ bill is good for environment

Fracking opponents state their case last year protest James R. ThompsCenter Chicago.  |  SUN-TIMES PHOTO

Fracking opponents state their case last year at a protest at the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago. | SUN-TIMES PHOTO

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Updated: March 27, 2013 6:19AM

Illinois will have the best environmental protections in the country for a new method of oil and gas drilling if a compromise between environmentalists and industry is enacted into law.

That’s a big if, given how the legislative process is known to alter bills into unrecognizable forms before the final vote. But we’re holding out hope because this bill was reached with extensive input from both environmentalists and industry and has the support of key Downstate legislators, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Gov. Pat Quinn.

What remains is to find a way to generate revenues needed to pay for necessary new state oversight and to settle the question of whether the state should get an additional cut to help its crippled budget.

At issue is a process called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” in which water, sand and chemicals pumped into subterranean rocks force out natural gas and oil that can’t be extracted through conventional means. Fracking has produced cheap energy, but environmentalists say it has inflicted toxic wastewater pits, contaminated drinking water, air pollution and underground toxins on states where fracking has already begun.

Geologists think Downstate Illinois has large reserves of oil and gas in the so-called New Albany shale that could be extracted through fracking. Industry has invested more than $100 million on leasing rights. But Illinois’ oil and gas drilling rules written in 1941 don’t cover the new technology. Environmentalists point out that fracking could be going on right now, and under current rules the state wouldn’t even know about it.

Some environmentalists are calling for a two-year fracking moratorium. But most of them say that fracking — with all the cheap energy it can produce — isn’t going away and the current bill offers the best hope of protecting the environment.

Among the protections in the “Hydraulic Fracturing Regulatory Act” are a requirement that all waste be stored in closed tanks; restrictions on natural gas venting; a ban on injecting carcinogenic hydrocarbons undergound, the disclosure of all fracking chemicals to the public, enforcement against permit violations and provisions to protect water supplies.

Last year, a bill passed the Senate and a proposal emerged that included a 12 percent “severance” tax on top of existing taxes. Industry representatives say that’s so high that drilling companies would turn their backs on Illinois. But even if that’s too high, the state still should get some share of the profits — the underground reserves are a resource of the people of Illinois. A phased-in tax is one option.

Meanwhile, those who avoided the gold rush mentality and hammered out a strong environmental bill deserve credit. Let’s hope Round 2, the fight over financing, works out as well.

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