Illinois would have the strongest protective oversight rules on fracking in the country under legislation introduced on Feb. 21 in the General Assembly. The bill includes nearly all the key elements for an effective chemical disclosure policy identified in a previous Center for Effective Government report. The bill represents stronger model legislation for states that want to protect the public from the health and environmental risks of fracking.
To date, Illinois has not had any significant oil or natural gas fracking. But over the past two years, companies have acquired leases to explore the New Albany Shale, which runs through southeastern and southern Illinois. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, this shale formation may hold 1 trillion to 8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. (U.S. consumers use 22 trillion cubic feet of gas each year.)
Last year, the state Senate passed a bill, SB 3280, supported by the oil and gas industry and opposed by environmental groups that closely followed the language of model legislation recommended by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC is an influential conservative policy shop that drafts corporate-friendly model legislation and markets the bills to state policymakers. The ALEC bill failed to pass in the state House as some lawmakers introduced an amendment to try and change the bill into a one-year moratorium on fracking, which derailed the process.
After the session ended, legislators met with the state’s attorney general, state agencies, business and industry leaders, and environmental groups to negotiate another bill. After months of negotiation, a bipartisan group introduced the Illinois’ Hydraulic Fracturing Regulatory Act, or HB 2615, which lays out new and stronger approaches to ensure the disclosure of chemicals used in fracking.
Baseline Water Testing and Chemical Reporting
The Illinois bill would require companies to report all the chemicals they plan to use in fracking and to gather baseline water quality data, as part of the permit application process and prior to drilling. These components, missing from most state rules on fracking, are essential to protecting water resources and the health of those living in the area and drinking the water.
To ensure the accuracy and completeness of the information reported, companies would be required to hire independent third parties (approved by the state) to conduct water quality testing near the well site. Companies would also be required to monitor the water quality for 30 months after gas harvesting is completed. The state must post the results of these tests on its public website, within seven days of receipt.
In addition to requiring reporting of chemicals planned to be used before drilling, the Illinois bill requires drillers to report detailed information on the chemicals actually used after the well is completed and is operating. The required information includes unique chemical identification numbers, concentrations and quantities, and total volume of water or the type and total volume of base fluid used (if not water). The bill also bans the use of diesel fuel (commonly found in fracking fluids) because it contains carcinogenic compounds.
Limiting Trade Secrets
Unlike most previous state oversight rules on chemical disclosure, the Illinois bill provides more stringent limits on the use of “trade secrets” exemptions, though it still allows companies to withhold chemical information under the loophole. Companies would be required to submit both redacted and un-redacted copies of trade secrets requests, along with a detailed explanation of why the information is confidential. The state will review each trade secrets claim and, if approved, post redacted copies on its website. The legislation also stipulates that anyone can challenge companies’ claims of trade secrets and seek to disclose the chemical information.
Furthermore, under the Illinois legislation, health professionals, such as emergency medical technicians, nurses, and doctors, would have access to the identity of chemicals in products – including trade secrets. The Illinois bill would allow health professionals to share that information with others as needed, including the affected patient, other health professionals involved in the patient’s treatment, the patient’s family, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or other public health agencies. This is a significant improvement from prior state disclosure rules like those in Ohio and Pennsylvania, which prevented health professionals from sharing information.
The bill also requires the state to maintain a centralized online repository of all information related to fracking operations in the state, which would provide the public with easy access to information about operations in specific locations. Online disclosure helps citizens evaluate the potential risks and rewards of allowing natural gas harvesting in their communities.
The Illinois database would include: permit applications, up-to-date copies of the chemicals used in specific gas wells, water monitoring data, waste disposal, and any complaints or violations (including plain-language descriptions of all known risks to public health, life, property, and animals). Users will be able to search for well completion data by well name and location, dates of fracturing and drilling operations, operator, and chemical additives.
In addition to requiring information disclosure on the state’s website, the bill also provides the public with an opportunity to participate during the permit application process and voice concerns – allowing the public to comment and request public hearings on permit applications and to appeal permit decisions. Companies will also be required to provide public notice in local newspapers of permit notices.
Reactions to the Bill
Remarkably, the bill received support from both industry representatives and several environmental groups. Illinois has the “opportunity to set a standard for the nation,” stated Jim Watson, Executive Director of the Illinois Petroleum Council, an industry trade group, which supports the proposal, along with the Illinois Oil and Gas Association, Illinois Chamber of Commerce, and Illinois Manufacturing Association.
Many environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), came out in support of the bill, though they continue to demand a state moratorium on gas drilling until the public health risks of fracking can be fully evaluated and addressed. “Illinois citizens and our environment, at the moment, are virtually defenseless against the problems experienced in other states…That’s why it is essential that Illinois move quickly to get the strongest possible safeguards in place to protect citizens and their water supplies,” stated the Sierra Club’s Illinois Chapter. “[W]ith rules that would govern fracking currently speeding through the state legislature … it was important to jump in to ensure that protections will be as strong as possible to protect communities,” NRDC’s Henry Henderson concluded.
Despite the bill’s introduction, many local environmental groups and communities continue to call on the state to study the impact of fracking and evaluate best practices prior to allowing drilling; a two-year moratorium bill was introduced in the state’s Senate earlier in February. The Illinois Coalition for a Moratorium on Fracking – whose members include Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment (SAFE) and MoveOn.org Illinois – is leading the moratorium effort and planning a lobbying day on March 12.
The Illinois bill represents an advance in state fracking disclosure legislation that could influence debates about gas drilling and extraction in other states and on federal lands. Only about 13 out of 30 states with active gas reserves have passed oversight laws or established rules that require even basic public disclosure about the chemicals used in fracking. In addition, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management is finalizing a proposed rule on fracking on federal public lands. The proposed rule was leaked to the public and is significantly weaker than the Illinois legislation. Illinois has created a new standard for disclosure, protection, and oversight of gas drilling.