Illinois county to vote on fracking ban

As energy industry eyes New Albany Shale region, residents say they have concerns about health, safety and land rights

A sign posted in support of the fracking ban is pictured in Vienna, IL on Monday, March 17, 2014.
Jim Suhr/AP

An Illinois county will decide Tuesday on whether or not to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, as energy companies eye the “New Albany Shale” of the Illinois Basin. The shale could hold up to 300 billion barrels of oil and sits below the county.

If passed, it would follow numerous local and statewide efforts to stop or control fracking in the United States. Los Angeles has passed a moratorium against fracking, and several cities in heavily drilled Colorado and Texas have banned the practice.

A referendum question posed to voters in Johnson County, home to just over 12,000 residents, reads: “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 and safety.”

Fracking, a gas-extraction process through which sand, water and chemicals are pumped into the ground to release trapped fuel deposits, has increased significantly in the U.S. over the past decade.

The referendum was organized by two anti-fracking groups — Southern Illinoisans Against Fracking Our Environment (SAFE) and the Community Environment Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) of Pennsylvania.

SAFE and other opponents of fracking say the practice risks contaminating water supplies in Illinois, among other environmental and safety risks. However, supporters of the process contend that allowing energy companies to conduct fracking could provide a much needed boon to the state’s economy, primarily in the form of jobs.

SAFE compiled 1000 signatures supporting the ban — almost three times more than is required to put the issue to a vote.

The result, which is expected to be announced Tuesday night, is nonbinding, but organizers say a vote against fracking would send a clear message to county officials that residents are against the controversial practice.

If passed, the ban would still have to be approved by Johnson County’s board of three commissioners — one of whom told Al Jazeera he would not support the ban.

“You’ve got a bunch of environmentalists that want a bill of rights that covers a whole lot of stuff that these environmentalists stand for … and I’m not going to get into it,” said Phil Stewart, a Johnson County commissioner. “I’ve leased my land to the oil companies and I see nothing wrong with fracking.”

Stewart said 192 landowners in Johnson County have already leased land to energy companies and have not reported any problems.

The state of Illinois passed a bill in June 2013 to regulate fracking, but environmentalists argue that it does not do enough to protect the environment, or human health and safety. Since the bill was passed, energy companies have begun exploring the potential of the Illinois Basin’s “New Albany Shale.”

Kansas-based Woolsey Petroleum Corporation is one of those energy companies.

“I have no idea about the ban deal that’s going on, but I think it’s ridiculous. We’ve been fracking the state of Illinois since the early 50’s,” I. Wayne Woolsey, president of Woolsey Petroleum Corp. told Al Jazeera.

Woolsey contends that his company has drilled hundreds of wells in Kansas without causing damage to fresh water supplies or the surface.

According to the company’s profile, Woolsey Petroleum has accumulated over 250,000 net acres in large blocks for exploratory purposes in several Illinois and Indiana counties. It plans to continue acquiring leases in the Illinois Basin, which includes portions of Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky.

Developing those potential reservoirs could bring “tremendous growth to the region including new jobs and increased revenue to the states, counties, and land owners,” the profile states.

“I’m surprised there’s so much opposition. You would think the state, with its current economic situation and all that debt would welcome anything that could pay for roads and schools,” Woolsey said.

SAFE told Al Jazeera that Woolsey Petroleum had already acquired nearly 200 leases in Johnson County since the state bill regulating fracking was passed although the company has yet to begin drilling.

After the bill passed, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources created rules based on those regulations. A draft version of those rules was released in November 2013 and left open to public comment.

“More than 32,000 comments were written to the department after the rules were released,” said Annette McMichael, communications director for SAFE and a Johnson County landowner. Now the department is reviewing the comments and revising the rules before the final version is released.

McMichael said the number of comments received is an indication of the level of concern many Johnson County residents have about fracking. One issue for residents has to do with land rights, in this case subsurface trespassing.

“Under the current law, landowners and mineral-rights owners will not be notified when a horizontal well bore extends under their property,” McMichaels said, adding that well bores can travel up to a mile and a half from the drill pad. Chemicals can remain in the well bores — risking chemical contamination of the ground and water resources.

“Another concern is the possibility of an earthquake,” she added. “We live on two major faults, and it’s becoming more and more obvious that fracking can cause earthquakes.”

Residents in Ohio, Texas and Oklahoma have reported an increase in earthquakes that they believe is somehow related to fracking. Earlier in March, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources halted fracking operations while experts analyzed data from the earthquakes.

By altering underground rock formations, fracking can expedite and accentuate earthquakes, which under normal circumstances would happen in the next 100 or thousand years, some scientists have said. 

But like Stewart, the commissioner, not everyone in Johnson County supports a ban on fracking. Indeed, it’s become a divisive issue.

On Feb. 19, a member of the county’s board of commissioners, Ernie Henshaw, formed an anti-ban group called Citizens Opposed to Johnson County Fracking Proposition. Henshaw told Al Jazeera he had no comment, but has argued elsewhere that the proposal is about a “Community Bill of Rights” rather than a fracking ban. The total membership of the group is unclear.

McMichael told Al Jazeera she was “very disappointed” that the commission did not remain impartial until after the vote. She said that there has been an industry-funded effort to sway public opinion against the ban.

“They’ve scared people and confused the issue — saying we are trying to do more than ban fracking,” McMichael said.

Industry-funded groups have sent waves of direct mail to residents advocating against the ban, purchased “massive” radio time, and distributed literature door to door, McMichael said.

She also said some home owners have posted signs in their front yard’s that read: “Protect Johnson County, Vote No!”

If the ban fails to pass, McMichael said, “We’ll go back to the education campaign — one thing the oil and gas industry doesn’t realize is that we’re never going to quit. And we have the truth on our side.”

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