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State News

March 14, 2013

Fracking foes hope Madigan can sway lawmakers

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CHICAGO (AP) — Illinois' powerful House speaker said Wednesday that he supports a moratorium on high-volume oil and gas drilling, weighing in on the issue one day before a House committee is scheduled to consider competing bills involving the practice.

It was unclear how much sway that Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, would have over lawmakers' decisions, especially since more than 50 House members already have signed on to a bill that would regulate hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" — the key to jumpstarting the practice in Illinois. Some suggested his comments might be meant to pressure industry over drilling fees and taxes.

But environmentalists and landowners, who rallied at the Statehouse this week to urge lawmakers to impose a moratorium, said they welcome the support.

"We take the speaker at his word and hold him to it that he recognizes a moratorium as the only true way to protect public health and the environment from the rolling environmental disaster that fracking has been," in other states, said Bruce Ratain, state policy associate with Environment Illinois. "This is what real leadership looks like."

Madigan, who introduced a failed drilling moratorium last year, would not elaborate except to say, "read about what happened in Pennsylvania." The issue there has become controversial, including over water quality near drilling sites.

Fracking uses high-pressure mixtures of water, sand or gravel and chemicals to crack rock formations and release oil and natural gas. Industry insists it can be done safely; opponents say it can cause air and water pollution and deplete water resources.

Last month, Rep. John Bradley, a Marion Democrat, introduced a regulatory bill touted as among the toughest in the nation and drafted with the help of the oil and gas industry, some environmental groups and lawmakers. Two Chicago Democrats — Rep. Deb Mell and Sen. Mattie Hunter — have introduced bills in their respective chambers that would impose a two-year ban on the practice. Opponents say that would allow time for more environmental and health impact studies as well as for advances in drilling technology.

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