Fracking bill passes Senate, advances to Illinois House

</element><element id="paragraph-1" type="body"><![CDATA[A bill to better regulate the use of hydraulic fracturing or fracking for oil production passed the Senate unanimously Thursday 54-0 after it gained the support of both industry and environmental groups.

State Sen. John O. Jones, R-Mount Vernon, co-sponsored the bipartisan legislation after realizing he might be the General Assembly&#39;s only lawmaker with fracking experience having started working in the region&#39;s oil industry when he was 15 years old back in the 1950s.

"I&#39;m the only one in the 177 (representatives and senators) that&#39;s ever done a fracking job. I probably participated in 500 plus fracking jobs in Southern Illinois," Jones said.

The bill SB 3280 passed out of the Senate&#39;s Environment Committee unanimously last Thursday. Supporters include the Illinois Oil & Gas Association and the Illinois Petroleum Association on the industry side, the Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Chamber of Commerce representing land owners and local businesses as well as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council on the environmental side.

Despite its support from state environmental organizations, retired farmer Chuck Paprocki of Carbondale and a leader in the anti-fracking group S.A.F.E., feels it goes in the wrong direction.

Rather than just regulate the industry, "we want a ban on it until we know for sure it&#39;s going to be safe," Paprocki said.

"Everybody needs oil, but if we are destroying our farmlands for oil and stuff, it&#39;s not a good tradeoff," he added.

The oil industry&#39;s been doing "frac jobs" in Illinois Basin oil fields since at least the 1950s, explained Jones and Ellen Montgomery, a horizontal drilling expert whose firm has been active in Illinois in the past and expects to be much busier in the future. The difference now is the industry&#39;s increasing interest in horizontal, or lateral drilling techniques combined with the use of fracking.

The new bill addresses environmental concerns by setting tougher standards on drill casings, better reporting requirements to the state and disclosure of the chemicals used in the fracking process. It also legislates that underground water sources be protected from the chemical mixes used in the fracking process.

In fracking, or hydraulic fracturing as it&#39;s been historically known, oil producers insert a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the oil or shale formations to literally fracture the rock and allow the oil or gas to seep out into the well.

"The chemicals are used primarily with the brine water. You mix (in) the chemicals to make it jelly-like," Jones explained, "You mix sand with that jelled water and that goes out into the formation to hold the formation open so the gas or oil can flow more easily to the bore hole (so it) can be produced."

The environmental concerns brought by activists generally focus on how to protect ground water aquifers such as the 130-foot wells used by the Saline Valley Conservancy District to provide drinking water for southeastern Illinois residents.

Fracking supporters note that even traditional oil drilling has focused on a layer of oil deposits much deeper than the aquifers that provide drinking water.

The new interest in Illinois has focused on the New Albany shale formation which runs thousands of feet deeper than the region&#39;s previous oil wells and water resources.

Oil companies may drill down four to five thousand feet deep. To protect aquifers drillers use a series of steel and concrete casings.

"By the time you get past the aquifers, you have three strings of steel casings and concrete in between all of those protecting the groundwater from contamination," Montgomery said.

In addition the shear depth of the drilling provides its own protection, she added.

"A lot of these wells are several thousand feet deep," Montgomery explained. "The depth of the frac may come up 100 feet to 200 feet if they are lucky, but getting (contaminants) to the surface is just impossible. There are so many different layers in the rock&#8230; It just doesn&#39;t allow a fracture nearly to surface where the groundwater is. It&#39;s just not possible," she added.

Jones added that in all his first-hand experience he had "never seen a mishap in all my years" in Illinois.

Although widespread commercial oil exploration has been around Illinois for century and fracking used for more than half of that period, Jones and Montgomery admit the new focus on fracking and horizontal drilling in combination is something unprecedented.

"In Illinois it will be a totally new experience," Jones said. "There has been a small amount of horizontal drilling, but it has been very, very limited."

Even U.S. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois who has been vocal in his support of new federal regulations targeting the use of coal expressed support for fracking during his visit to Harrisburg earlier this month.

"You know we&#39;re going to ask all the right questions because there are legitimate concerns, but we&#39;ve found it can be done safely if it is carefully regulated. We don&#39;t want in any way to contaminate water supplies in the process. We don&#39;t want to put anyone&#39;s public health in danger. We just want it done in a thoughtful careful manner that will call for some government oversight and regulation to make it work," Durbin explained.

While the Democratic senator would rather see the regulations take place at the federal level. Local U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-19th disagrees and supports the states tackling the problem as the Springfield legislation would do.

"The states have been fine in regulating and dealing with fracking," said Shimkus noting that most were "all moving to at least identify the fracking compounds," used in the process.

All three lawmakers agreed in the potential that fracking and horizontal drilling could bring to the state.

"If it can be done in that way it&#39;s a source of energy that we never dreamed of that&#39;s just sitting there waiting to be tapped," said Durbin who remained coy at giving an exact value to its potential, only pointing to the oil boom taking place in the Bakkan shale formation in North Dakota, now the nation&#39;s third-largest oil producing state after Texas and Alaska.

Jones was more forthcoming.

"I look at it to be a success," said Jones. "We could see a boom of thousands of jobs in Southern Illinois."

"With all the jobs that this will create, people will be making a real good income. You&#39;re talking $50,000 a year on up jobs. The State of Illinois will see a big benefit," Jones predicted.

Jones said one or two companies hope to start exploring in Southern Illinois soon.

"I would say in the next two years you will see a lot of activity in the oil and gas industry in Southern Illinois," Jones said.

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