By Jamey Dunn
A ballot initiative to ban fracking in Johnson County was solidly defeated during last night’s primary vote.
After years of negotiation among interest groups and environmental organizations, Gov. Pat Quinn signed a law regulating high-volume hydraulic horizontal fracking in June. Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, is a process used to extract oil and gas by pumping water, chemicals and sand into the ground. The water fractures a source rock, allowing gas or oil to escape and be collected. Sand is used to hold the cracks in the rock open. Chemicals are added to the water for a variety of reasons, such as disinfection, lubrication and making the water thicker to keep the sand from sinking. Nearly 200 leases have been signed by landowners in the sparsely populated county to allow companies to use fracking to extract oil and gas.
The new law sets statewide rules for the practice and does not allow for local bans. The Department of Natural Resources, which will regulate fracking, is currently working to establish rules that will determine the implementation of the new law. The nonbinding referendum in Johnson County, which is in southern Illinois, would not have had the legal power to keep fracking out of the community, but supporters had hoped that if the proposition passed, it would spur local officials into passing something known as a Community Bill of Rights. “It doesn’t do much good to just pass a ban because that’s not ever going to stand up in court,” said Annette McMichael, communications director with Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment (SAFE). “It [was] our hope that the commissioners [would] see that as a call of action to go ahead and develop a community bill of rights.”
The bill of rights is a tactic championed by the Community Environmental Legal Defense. The group argues that communities are having their rights to say no to potentially harmful practices in their area preempted by other levels of government. “To protect these rights, the Community Bills of Rights prohibit activities that would violate those rights, such as fracking and genetically modified seeds. Harmful corporate activities that directly impact a community are banned as community rights are elevated above corporate ‘rights,’” said the CELD’s website.
But voters rejected the concept. More than half of those that went to the polls in Johnson County said “no” to the question: “Shall the people’s right to local self-government be asserted by Johnson County to ban corporate fracking as a violation of their rights to health, safety and a clean environment?” The initiative failed with 2,223 opposed and 1,602 in favor. Many believe the question brought voters to the polls; turnout was just under half of registered voters, a high rate for a primary election.
Early polling indicated that there was widespread support for the initiative. It was placed on the ballot after backers collected 1,000 signatures. They needed fewer than 400. But local groups—including businesses, farmers, and organized labor—came together to oppose measure. The opposition raised about $20,000 to get its message out and had at least one county commission backing them. The group focused on the concern that a community bill of rights could be used to block other development in the county beyond fracking. “That says a lot about the concern that is within the community,” Mike McMahan, treasurer of Citizens Opposed to Johnson County Fracking Proposition, said to The Southern Illinoisan about the vote.
Those in support of the initiative said that the opposition clouded the issue by making it about something other than fracking, which they said was their only target. “I’m disappointed of course. The reason I’m in this is because this is my home,” local proponent Stephen Nichols told ABC News affiliate WSIl.
“We were very pleased with the results in Johnson County last night,” said Mark Denzler, co-chair of industry group GROW-IL and chief operating officer of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association. He said that he thinks the measure won out in part because the public learned about the regulations built into the new law, which supports call the strictest in the country, and the safety measures taken by the industry to avoid environmental calamities. The biggest concern that typically comes along with fracking is water pollution and the sheer volume of water the process requires. But the potential for air pollution and increased wear and tear on local infrastructure are also factors.
Denzler, who was part of the negotiations over the new law, said legislators opted to give the state control over fracking legislation to ensure that the rules are the same across the state. “It makes it difficult for any industry to do business on a county by county basis. ... Some of these leases might cross county lines, for example. You want to make sure that you have consistent regulations.” He said that while some residents may want to ban fracking, other counties might want to set very weak regulations in an effort to draw more development. Denzler said that a statewide standard ensures that all citizens are protected equally.
Those who are worried about the environmental impact fracking will have in southern Illinois say they will continue to push for stricter regulation through the IDNR and will continue efforts at public education about the possible risks. Nichols said he plans to keep trying to “convince people of the potential for problems with fracking before it gets here.”