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Illinois legislative committee puts off voting on hydraulic fracturing rules until November

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CHICAGO — An Illinois legislative panel has put off voting on rules for high-volume oil and gas extraction until next month, as it grapples with how to ensure regulations are fair to industry while protecting the environment.

The Joint Committee on Administrative Rules has the last word on whether the rules for hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," can take effect. It met Tuesday to discuss the matter, but did not vote and said it would meet again Nov. 6.

Hydraulic fracturing uses a mixture of water, chemicals and sand to crack open rock formations thousands of feet underground to release trapped oil and gas. Opponents fear it will pollute and deplete groundwater or cause health problems. The industry insists the method is safe and will bring a badly needed economic boost to southern Illinois.

With industry anxious to begin and opponents trying to stop it at all costs, the legislative committee is at the center of last-minute feuding over the wording of the proposed regulations. The rules were drafted by the Department of Natural Resources to implement a new state law allowing fracking.

Lawmakers on the panel expressed concern that if no regulations are approved by the Nov. 15 deadline, industry could find a way to begin operating anyway under current law and without any guidelines in place.

Under questioning Tuesday, Department of Natural Resources Director Marc Miller told the panel that was a possibility, while adding that only a court order would prompt his agency to issue a permit under that scenario.

"There is no ironclad assurance that the practice wouldn't take place," he said.

Democratic state Rep. Lou Lang said he is opposed to fracking but voted for the law because he believed it was better to regulate it than to allow it to happen without oversight.

In a sign of the building pressure, Lang lashed out at opponents of fracking who have accused the panel of colluding with industry to gut environmental safeguards.

Republican state Sen. Dale Righter told Miller revisions were needed to ensure "exacting clarity" in the rules to avoid frivolous challenges to drilling.

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