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Rural county to take Illinois fracking debate to the ballot box

Main Street in Vienna, Johnson County, Illinois where voters will decide on an anti-fracking ballot measure this spring. (Photo by J. Stephen Conn via Creative Commons)

Main Street in Vienna, Johnson County, Illinois where voters will decide on an anti-fracking ballot measure this spring. (Photo by J. Stephen Conn via Creative Commons)

“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 question, which will show up on the March primary ballot in the southern Illinois county, is an example of an increasingly popular tactic among fracking opponents: trying to assert local control over a practice that in most cases is not specifically addressed by federal or state laws.

The move is especially significant in Illinois, where state regulators are refining fracking rules that critics say are way too lenient.

On December 3, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources closed its 50-day public comment period on the proposed state regulations. The agency received more than 20,000 comments, the bulk of them reportedly opposed to the regulations or to fracking as a whole.

“People recognized that (the state regulations were) not an act representative of the rule of the people in many parts of the state,” said Natalie Long, a downstate Illinois resident who works for the Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. “The issue we’re looking at is not just fracking or no fracking, it’s a rights issue. Who decides who gets fracked? The people themselves who live with the consequences or somebody else who’s making that decision for them?”

Johnson County residents opposed to fracking are hoping their three-member county commission will ban the practice. Last year they asked the commissioners to place a fracking-related referendum on the ballot. The commissioners declined to use their power to do so and instead suggested residents collect the 374 valid signatures required for a ballot initiative.

They did, with more than 1,000 signatures collected in an effort spearheaded by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund and Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment (SAFE).

Ballot ban?

Supporters of the ballot initiative say it is an important statement and safeguard against what they fear would be devastating environmental and economic consequences of shale drilling.

Opponents of the initiative argue that fracking could provide needed economic stimulation for the county, and that the state regulations will help protect the environment. They also say that the initiative could open the county up to lawsuits by oil and gas companies, leasing companies or even landowners who want to lease their land for drilling.

“I don’t think we have the legal authority to override the state of Illinois,” said county commissioner Ernie Henshaw. “I think we’re going to end up in a lawsuit. They may get an injunction while this lawsuit is going on, but I think we’re in an undefendable position.”

He resents the idea that the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund is, he thinks, pushing the ballot initiative as part of a larger anti-corporate and anti-fossil fuel agenda.

“I don’t want to be a test case for this group, and I think that’s what they’re looking for,” he said.

Long, who lives near Johnson County, disputes that characterization.

“The goal of our group is to protect rights wherever they are being violated,” she said. “The goal before us whether we are in the southeast, northwest, wherever is to protect the role of citizens putting their foot down and saying this industry is not welcome here.”

The Illinois Oil and Gas Association, an industry group, did not respond to interview requests.

Or oversight committee?

Commissioner Henshaw has proposed creating a county oversight committee to study the issues around fracking.

The proposal has been ill-fated so far. The commission scheduled a vote on the idea January 6, but the meeting was canceled because of bad weather. At the next meeting, on January 13, the idea was tabled in the face of local disagreement.

Henshaw said the committee he envisions would include “a local farmer who has not signed a lease, a local farmer who has signed a lease, a local real estate agent, someone involved with road repair and someone involved with economic development.”

He also invited the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. But fracking opponents have bitterly opposed the idea of an oversight committee, and rebuffed Henshaw’s invitation to be part of it.

“We cannot fathom why anyone would want to create an oversight committee unless it’s to slow the (ballot referendum) process down,” said Annette McMichael, a landowner and leader of SAFE  who has turned down landmen looking to lease her property for fracking. “A study is what people create when they want an issue to die. They already have the facts.”

Henshaw said his idea for an oversight committee has been misunderstood and misconstrued by opponents.

“Somehow this has gotten turned around, there are charges led by one group that I’m trying to go against the will of the people,” said Henshaw, who says he is personally “undecided” about fracking, though he thinks the technology exists to do it safely.

“My initial goal with this committee wasn’t in any way pro or con, I was trying to make it a bipartisan group…to start discussing some of the issues – what will the impacts be if fracking happens? What are the issues with protecting roads?”

Surprising support

McMichael thinks the ballot initiative has a solid chance of passing, especially given the results of an October poll by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University which found 20 percent of voters undecided on the issue, with the rest evenly divided.

The poll, which surveyed 403 voters in 18 counties, including Johnson, found native southern Illinoisans were more supportive of fracking than non-natives, and women were more opposed than men.

The poll also found very strong support for the region’s coal industry, meaning that even many people who support fossil fuel extraction in general have reservations about fracking.

“That was much stronger support (for limiting fracking) than a lot of people had anticipated – we feel very good about what’s going on,” McMichael said.

McMichael also pointed to a study released in November that found job creation in six states covered by the Marcellus and Utica shales was smaller and less significant than industry claims, and highly subject to market fluctuations. The study, by the Multi-State Shale Research Collaborative — researchers with various universities and advocacy groups — concluded that:

“…the job benefits of horizontal drilling in the Marcellus and Utica Shale have been exaggerated by the drilling industry and its supporters. While the industry has created jobs, particularly in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, the shale-related jobs numbers are far below industry claims. We show how shale-related jobs are in the range of thousands to–at best–a few tens of thousands of jobs. They are not in the hundreds of thousands of jobs as claimed by the industry and its proponents.”

Legal issues

Nationwide, more than 100 municipalities have passed bans or restrictions on fracking, though not all of them are areas targeted for oil and gas extraction.

In November elections, at least seven municipalities in Ohio and Colorado voted on whether to restrict fracking, with four towns voting in favor of restrictions. Elected and industry officials in both states maintain that state law allowing fracking trumps local ordinances. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper joined the oil and gas industry in a lawsuit challenging a fracking ban the town of Longmont adopted in 2012.

Colorado fracking opponents are collecting signatures to place a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would eliminate the state’s ability to pre-empt local bans on fracking or other corporate activities. The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund and a network of about 50 Colorado groups are involved in that effort. They need more than 86,000 valid signatures by August 1.

Cliff Willmeng is an Illinois native who has helped lead a fight against fracking in Colorado since moving there several years ago. His town, Lafayette, voted in November to ban the practice. Willmeng said such “acts of legal civil disobedience” are an important tactic for people trying to protect their health and environment.

“Here in Colorado we’ve listened to every possible argument about how fracking can be regulated,” and found them all lacking, Willmeng said. “The most important thing for Illinois is that people do not willingly go into the dance of regulation, and instead enact whatever laws they see fit to protect their public health and local autonomy.”

McMichael said supporters of the initiative are not deterred by the threat of lawsuits.

“The bottom line for me is that that’s a chance that my community, my county is going to have to take because the alternative is worse – a lawsuit is less painful to a community than major destruction from fracking,” she said.

The right to drill

The ballot initiative is worded in a way that essentially assumes Johnson County residents have already agreed they want to ban fracking. But there’s been no comprehensive survey or vote among residents. Henshaw thinks there is significant support for fracking in Johnson County, and that many citizens do not want a county law deciding whether they can lease their land for drilling.

“We can’t say there’s no interest in fracking here because we have almost 200 people who have signed leases with energy companies,” he said. “Obviously people are interested in the potential revenue. You have a farm you can make money on – what right does the Johnson County board of commissioners have to come in and say, no, you can’t make money on your farm?”

One local fracking supporter is county commissioner Phil Stewart, who has farmed in the area since 1968. He disagrees with opponents’ contention that fracking would use inordinate amounts of water and cause environmental harm and heavy wear and tear on roads.

“I’m not all that concerned about (fracking) myself,” said Stewart. “I think it would be good for the county and the state…There’s plenty of water in Johnson County — it rains all the time and fills your lakes back up… And [the drilling companies] are just as interested in good roads as we are.

“In my opinion they’ll take the care of the land – they’re not going to do something that destroys everything and makes a big mess.”

Comments (5)

I’m so glad there is push-back in Johnson County. Fracking has already been proven to be unsafe. The people must ban it; our state senator sold us out. Good luck Johnson County. Stick with it. Save your water, land, and environment. It’s the right thing to do. You are my heroes! Sincerely meant.

By Joy on Jan 16, 2014

We need to Ban Fracking and implement a Residential and Commercial Feed in Tariff through out the Nation, this petition starts in California.

California, there is enough Residential Solar to power 2.25 San Onofres, couple that with a Residential and Commercial Feed in Tariff and we can solve some of these environmental and electrical generating problems.

The Southwest is in the midst of a record drought, some 14 years in the making, which means the water supply for many Western states – California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada – is drying up. Last month the Bureau of Reclamation announced they’re cutting the flow of water into Lake Mead, which has already lost 100 feet of water since the drought began.

What happens if the Southwest drought does not end soon?

Will we keep using 3 to 6 million gallons of Clean Water per Fracked well, to extract natural gas?

This petition will ask the California Regulators and Law makers to allocate Renewable Portfolio Standards to Ca. Home Owners for a Residential Feed in Tariff, the RPS is the allocation method that is used to set aside a certain percentage of electrical generation for Renewable Energy in the the State.

The State of California has mandated that 33% of its Energy come from Renewable Energy by 2020.

The state currently produces about 71% of the electricity it consumes, while it imports 8% from the Pacific Northwest and 21% from the Southwest.

This is how we generate our electricity in 2011, natural gas was burned to make 45.3% of electrical power generated in-state. Nuclear power from Diablo Canyon in San Luis Obispo County accounted for 9.15%, large hydropower 18.3%, Renewable 16.6% and coal 1.6%.

There is 9% missing from San Onofre and with the current South Western drought, how long before the 18.3% hydro will be effected?

Another generator of power that jumps out is natural gas, 45.3%, that is a lot of Fracked Wells poisoning our ground water, 3 to 6 million gallons of water are used per well. If Fracking is safe why did Vice Pres Cheney lobby and win Executive, Congressional, and Judicial exemptions from:

Clean Water Act.

Safe Drinking Water.

Act Clean Air Act.

Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

Emergency Planning Community Right to Know Act.

National Environmental Policy Act.

“Americans should not have to accept unsafe drinking water just because natural gas is cheaper than Coal. the Industry has used its political power to escape accountability, leaving the American people unprotected, and no Industry can claim to be part of the solution if it supports exemptions from the basic Laws designed to ensure that we have Clean Water and Clean Air” Natural Resources Defense Council.

We have to change how we generate our electricity, with are current drought conditions and using our pure clean water for Fracking, there has to be a better way to generate electricity, and there is, a proven stimulating policy.

The Feed in Tariff is a policy mechanism designed to accelerate investment in Renewable Energy, the California FiT allows eligible customers generators to enter into 10- 15- 20- year contracts with their utility company to sell the electricity produced by renewable energy, and guarantees that anyone who generates electricity from R E source, whether Homeowner, small business, or large utility, is able to sell that electricity. It is mandated by the State to produce 33% R E by 2020.

FIT policies can be implemented to support all renewable technologies including:
Wind
Photovoltaics (PV)
Solar thermal
Geothermal
Biogas
Biomass
Fuel cells
Tidal and wave power.

There is currently 3 utilities using a Commercial Feed in Tariff in California Counties, Los Angeles, Palo Alto, and Sacramento, are paying their businesses 17 cents per kilowatt hour for the Renewable Energy they generate. We can get our Law makers and Regulators to implement a Residential Feed in Tariff, to help us weather Global Warming, insulate our communities from grid failures, generate a fair revenue stream for the Homeowners and protect our Water.

The 17 cents per kilowatt hour allows the Commercial Business owner and the Utility to make a profit.

Commercial Ca. rates are 17 – 24 cents per kilowatt hour.

Implementing a Residential Feed in Tariff at 13 cents per kilowatt hour for the first 2,300 MW, and then allow no more than 3-5 cents reduction in kilowatt per hour, for the first tier Residential rate in you area and for the remaining capacity of Residential Solar, there is a built in Fee for the Utility for using the Grid. A game changer for the Hard Working, Voting, Tax Paying, Home Owner and a Fair Profit for The Utility, a win for our Children, Utilities, and Our Planet.

We also need to change a current law, California law does not allow Homeowners to oversize their Renewable Energy systems.

Campaign to allow Californian residents to sell electricity obtained by renewable energy for a fair pro-business market price. Will you read, sign, and share this petition?

http://signon.org/sign/let-california-home-owners

“Solar is absolutely great as long as you stay away from leases and PPAs. Prices for solar have dropped so dramatically in the past year, that leasing a solar system makes absolutely no sense in today’s market.

The typical household system is rated at about 4.75 kW. After subtracting the 30% federal tax credit, the cost would be $9,642 to own this system. The typical cost to lease that same 4.75 kW system would be $35,205 once you totaled up the 20 years worth of lease payments and the 30% federal tax credit that you’ll have to forfeit when you lease a system. $9,642 to own or $35,205 to lease. Which would you rather choose?

If you need $0 down financing then there are much better options than a lease or PPA. FHA is offering through participating lenders, a $0 down solar loan with tax deductible interest and only a 650 credit score to qualify. Property Assessed Clean Energy loans are available throughout the state that require no FICO score checks, with tax deductible interest that allow you to make your payments through your property tax bill with no payment due until November 2014. Both of these programs allow you to keep the 30% federal tax credit as well as any applicable cash rebate. With a lease or PPA you’ll have to forfeit the 30% tax credit and any cash rebate, and lease or PPA payments are not tax deductible.

Solar leases and PPA served their purpose two years ago when no other viable form of financing was available, but today solar leases and PPAs are two of the most expensive ways to keep a solar system on your roof.” Ray Boggs

By Daniel Ferra on Jan 16, 2014

Ask commissioners Henshaw and Stewart if they themselves have sold rights on their own properties and are in line to profit personally from fracking? This would be interesting to know.

By Myra Wood Bennett on Jan 17, 2014

I feel the issue is in question is the property owners rights.There will always be 2 views one says its harmful the other namely the Companies say its not.I am a Viet Nam vet i own property in Johnson county.Everyone has rights and freedom BUT when your actions impact me its a problem.Example the owner next door allows fracking on his property as long as its contained on his property its a none issue reports prove it can impact other properties nearby.I didnt ask for the problem why should I suffer.Here is an idea have the oil companies post a surety bond to cover any claims to get a permit.Make them responsible for any damage they cause instead of the tax payer.They take the profits and run leaving us to clean up the mess.
Only I have the right to decide what happens on my property NO one else.

By RICK LANHAM on Jan 22, 2014

I live in northern Illinois and I stand by your right to say no to fracking in your area. Here web have the precious sand required for the fracking procedure. So everywhere you turn at any open field there are craters in the ground and next to them a mountain of sand to be shipped and coated. Harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde epoxy and furan are used to coat this sNd my town Rochelle il has one of these such plants owned by us silica it was presented as coated sands and jobs for the area a rail was built to ship the sand to Texas on the Bnsf for fracking purposes deals with the devil are being made all across Illinois mountains of sand do not stand still in wind when driving past or near a quarry you literally choke on the sand in the air and who regulates the chemicals? No one has been able to answer that the process involves heating so gases of these chemicals are released in the air the city council said hey they were going to build plant 500 feet away we kept it in our taxing district the mi’kmaq people in Quebec protested had a stand off against these companies mobilize and do not let them ruin your land your way of life which will drastically change because the gas companies only know how to rape and pillage standing in solidarity use the strength of the ancestors who still inhabit your land

By Vickie Novak on Jan 27, 2014