By Suzannah Gonzales
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Environmental activists on Friday said the state of Illinois' approval of its first permit to allow a specific kind of oil and gas fracking would increase the risk of harm to the environment and residents' health.
An Illinois Department of Natural Resources office determined on Thursday that Woolsey Operating Co's application to perform high volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing operations in White County in southern Illinois met all fracking rules and requirements.
Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, involves injecting water, sand and chemicals into wells to fracture shale and release natural gas and oil. Critics say the practice has polluted water supplies, while backers say it supplies needed energy resources.
The permit was the first one approved under 2014 state rules and regulations for high volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing.
That process is a riskier technique that became widespread in the early 2000s, said Anthony Ingraffea, a retired Cornell University engineering professor who has conducted research in the oil and gas industry as well as for environmental groups, including in Illinois.
The process uses 100 times more fluid and produces more waste that is pumped underground and has caused earthquakes, Ingraffea said. It also causes noise and air pollution.
"White County is not only particularly vulnerable to the impacts of fracking due to high levels of naturally occurring radioactivity and seismic activity, but also already faces periodic oil and brine spills," Food & Water Watch, a group advocating for healthy food and clean water, said in a statement.
Asked about environmentalists' concerns, Woolsey vice president Mark Sooter said Friday that Illinois regulations were among the toughest in the country.
"We feel comfortable that we will be able to protect the environment," he said in a telephone interview.
The Wichita, Kansas-based oil and gas production company plans to drill an exploration well in White County by the end of 2017, Sooter said. Afterward, company officials will decide if they want to build more wells.
Each new well would require applying for a new permit with the state.
U.S. President Donald Trump said during his campaign that he supported fracking, but state and local governments should be able to ban it. He has not weighed in on such bans since then.
The regulatory agencies in Trump's administration, including the EPA and Interior Department have taken steps to ease regulations for the oil and gas industry on both public and private land.
(Reporting by Suzannah Gonzales; Editing by Andrew Hay)