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Fracking could be Illinois’ savior

Updated: March 8, 2013 2:25AM

Before “fracking” and horizontal oil drilling was tried in North Dakota, the state was producing about 80,000 barrels of the sticky black stuff a day, not much more than Illinois.

Last December, North Dakota pumped out almost 800,000 barrels a day, making it the second-largest oil producer in the nation, ahead of Alaska.

Thanks to fracking, jobs are now so bountiful that the biggest problem is persuading qualified workers to move to the remote state.

North Dakota’s state government coffers are bursting with cash, and the governor wants to cut taxes and embark on a major infrastructure program for roads and schools, with plenty of money left over.

Fracking is legal in Illinois, but our regulations are ancient and nobody really knows if anybody is even doing it. The big companies say they’re waiting on new state regulations that are working their way through the General Assembly and new extraction fees, which have yet to be agreed to.

Some say that Illinois could be another North Dakota. We have gigantic shale deposits that have produced big results elsewhere. But not all shale deposits are equal. With our state’s notoriously bad luck, maybe nothing is actually there.

Then again, maybe there is something out there, and I think it’s worth a look.

I came to that conclusion even after watching the documentary “Gasland.” It’s a shocking film about how a reckless search for energy resources has hurt innocent people. A family in the movie can’t drink their own water because their well is so full of gas that they can literally light their tap water on fire. It’s a scary sight. Worse yet, nobody in the government wanted to do anything about it.

The movie has freaked people out all over the country. New York has banned fracking, which involves injecting fluids into the cracks of rock formations to force out gas and oil. The lower chamber in that state’s legislature just passed a bill to ban it for two more years, but the measure apparently faces an uphill climb in the Senate.

Illinois legislators, who can’t seem to get anything else done, found a way to bring the energy industry and environmentalists to the table and produce an agreement. The Sierra Club calls the proposed law the “strongest set of protections of any state in the country.” A representative with the Natural Resources Defense Council said the proposal will be “the strongest and most comprehensive law governing hydraulic fracturing — or ‘fracking’ — in the nation.”

There are some opponents, mainly some small groups in southern Illinois that don’t believe fracking can ever be done safely.

But this fracking proposal is immensely superior to anything in any other state. There’s actually a presumption of liability for contamination near fracking sites. So, if somebody’s tap water becomes flammable, they can more easily sue and recover damages.

There are mandated setbacks for population centers and water resources, some very toxic chemicals are banned, there are protections for the water supply during droughts and even regulations to help prevent fracking-induced earthquakes.

The list goes on. Strict waste storage rules, to stop the practice elsewhere of dumping waste into open ponds. Restrictions on venting of gas, which can cause smog. Public hearings, lots of testing, even citizen enforcement of the laws.

The next step is negotiating the extraction tax. The state can obviously use the money, so this is really important.

Maybe Illinois will finally do something right for a change, and maybe we’ll even get lucky and create a new industry here and lots of jobs. I think it’s definitely worth a shot.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and

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