CHICAGO – More than a year after a much-lauded compromise paved the way for high-volume oil and gas extraction in Illinois, the agency in charge of overseeing the practice has hired just four of 53 new employees it says it needs as it continues working to complete rules that drillers must follow.
The Department of Natural Resources has come under criticism from industry groups, lawmakers and other supporters of hydraulic fracturing who had hoped drilling could begin this summer. That scenario now appears unlikely.
The perception of delays led at one point to a threat by lawmakers to strip the DNR of its rule-making role in fracking. More recently, critics have raised suspicions that Gov. Pat Quinn's administration is dragging its feet on implementing the fracking rules until after his November re-election bid.
But agency officials say they are working diligently on filling the jobs, including posting almost two dozen, and still will meet a Nov. 15 legal deadline to have the rules in place.
"There is a large amount of work that needs to be done to stand up a new regulatory program and implement it," DNR Director Marc Miller said. "We have been methodical and efficient in our approach ... we are making great progress."
Miller said "every one of our agency lawyers is working" to revise a first draft of the rules, though he would not say when he expected to complete the process.
Hydraulic fracturing uses a mixture of water, chemicals and sand to crack open previously inaccessible 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 create thousands of new jobs.
Illinois was praised last year for a compromise between industry and environmentalists on how to regulate the practice, while other states have declared moratoriums or adopted less comprehensive regulations. But the implementing rules proposed by the DNR were criticized by environmentalists as weakening the agreed-on provisions. Industry officials, in turn, said they would stall permits.
The agency now is trying to respond to the concerns before issuing final rules. In May, drilling proponents' impatience bubbled over into a proposal to let lawmakers write the rules instead of the DNR, but it ultimately wasn't voted on.
Even if the rules were completed, the agency does not yet have enough experts to issue permits, inspect wells and perform other tasks associated with the anticipated influx of drilling activity. Last summer, state and industry officials said it could take a year to get the program running.
Miller said it took time to write job descriptions, develop interview questions and obtain approval to begin hiring. So far the agency has hired two well inspectors, an investigator and an office worker, and 23 other jobs are posted. The agency should have 15 people hired by the end of July, and will focus on first hiring those who will work in permitting, Miller said, adding that after July, hiring "will start picking up steam."
But some fracking supporters suggest the administration intentionally is stalling until after the Nov. 4 election to avoid angering opponents of the practice, which has led to protests by environmentalists and property owners in Illinois and elsewhere. The Democratic governor is facing a tough challenge from Republican businessman Bruce Rauner.
"I think this is a complete effort to slow down the process; I think it's politics pure and simple," said Mark Denzler, vice president of the Illinois Manufacturers Association, adding that the DNR had said it would hire half of the needed staff before the end of 2013 and half this year.
A Quinn spokesman, Dave Blanchette, dismissed talk of unnecessary delays. "The state received a large amount of feedback on this issue and we want to make sure the comments are considered," he said.
Miller, the DNR director, said the agency has had no trouble finding qualified people, and it has been preparing for months to start hiring them. He said he expects hiring to stay on track even though the General Assembly eliminated more than $2.5 million for agency salaries in the Fiscal 2015 budget that took effect July 1.
Blanchette said the funding was cut by lawmakers and it wasn't possible for Quinn to restore the money when he approved the budget.
Ann Alexander, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Chicago, said the agency must be prepared to "hit the ground running" when the rules are finished.
"In our view, there is only one thing worse than fracking happening in Illinois, and that is fracking happening in Illinois without enough DNR staff to make sure it's done in compliance with the law," she said.