Illinois fracking deal could become model

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CHICAGO -- After years of clashing over the drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," the oil industry and environmentalists have achieved something extraordinary in Illinois: They sat down together to draft regulations both sides could live with.

If approved by lawmakers, participants say, the rules would be the nation's strictest. The Illinois model might also offer a template to other states seeking to find a middle ground between energy firms that would like free rein and environmental groups that want to ban the practice entirely.

Fracking uses a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals to crack and hold open thick rock formations, releasing trapped oil and gas. The industry insists that the method is safe and would create thousands of jobs -- possibly 40,000 in the poorest area of Illinois, according to one study. Foes say it causes water and air pollution and permanently depletes freshwater resources.

In New York, which has a fracking moratorium until a health study is completed, one activist said Illinois environmentalists caved when they should have pushed harder to block fracking.

In Illinois, it came down to "do we accept the invitation to go to the table or walk away and allow industry to write the rules?" said Allen Grosboll, co-legislative director at the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center. "For us to say we were not going to participate, and drive the hardest deal we could to protect environment, would have been totally irresponsible."

The Natural Resources Defense Council supported a failed bid for a fracking moratorium last year. So with lawmakers clearly ready to allow fracking in southern Illinois, the NRDC wanted to ensure that there were significant safeguards, including making drillers liable for water pollution, requiring them to disclose the chemicals used and enabling residents to sue for damages.

Talks occurred over four or five months, mainly at the Statehouse in meetings led by state Rep. John Bradley, a Democrat who lives in the area where fracking would occur. Mr. Bradley whittled negotiators down to a core group: four from industry, four from environmental groups, plus representatives of the attorney general's and governor's offices, regulatory agencies and lawmakers, said Mark Denzler, vice president of the Illinois Manufacturers' Association. That group was pared further for the toughest negotiations, including talks with outside technical experts on complicated issues, said NRDC senior attorney Ann Alexander.

The deal was done by late February. It has yet to be considered by a legislative committee, which must endorse the proposal before sending it to the full House.

Although Illinois' proposed regulations might not work for every state, the unusual model of cooperation might, depending on the relationship between industry and environmentalists, Mr. Denzler said. Even now, though, Illinois' accord is "very precarious," and his group has warned that any attempts to change it before it comes for a vote "could tip it one way or another."

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