Two days before Thanksgiving, a loosely affiliated group of environmentalists, community organizers, and other citizens crowded into a room at the University of Illinois for the first of five public hearings regarding proposed regulations on hydraulic fracturing. Armed with pamphlets, guides for testifying, signs emblazoned with anti-fracking slogans, and passionate speeches, they came before an Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) panel to unanimously decry what they saw as an insultingly lax set of rules governing fracking. Refusing to concede that fracking would eventually take place in Illinois, many speakers called for a moratorium on fracking altogether. The room was packed past capacity, with more people crowding outside. Speakers hailed from a number of organizations: Frack-Free Illinois, Chicagoland Against Fracking, SAFE (Southern Illinoisans Against Fracking our Environment), Illinois People’s Action and others. As the IDNR panel retreated through a back door at the end of the two-hour hearing ended, some activists refused to leave, chanting slogans and demanding more hearings. Referring to fracking in Illinois, one speaker told protestors, “The train hasn’t left the station. We’re here, we all oppose it.”
In five short months the Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Regulatory Act (IHFRA) experienced a fall from grace in the eyes of activists. Still supported by industry specialists, legislators, and large environmental groups, the state’s attempt to regulate fracking began to face a fierce show of public opposition from smaller environmental groups. What explains the sudden appearance of a rift among environmental groups on the issue of fracking?
The schism began in 2012, when IHFRA emerged with the backing of four environmental groups, colloquially known as the “big greens”: the Environmental Law and Policy Center, Faith in Place, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Sierra Club Illinois. With strong bases of lawyers, policy researchers, and scientists, these four respected groups gave IHFRA a stamp of approval from the environmental community in the months leading up to its passage. When a detailed set of regulations emerged to accompany the law in November 2013, the big greens suddenly grew quiet. Instead of sending masses of members to dominate hearings as other groups had done, the first three groups elected to deliver a single comment at one public hearing, which included the remark that “IDNR’s draft regulations run afoul of the law in several significant ways and thereby fail to sufficiently protect residents from the known environmental and public health risks of fracking”—a dry summary that stood in contrast to the passionate outcry from smaller groups on the issue of fracking.
The “little greens” are a motley crew of social justice groups, environmental watchdogs, issue groups, and others. Some “little greens”, like above-mentioned SAFE, are issue groups, focused specifically on fracking in Illinois, others are social justice networks and grassroots community organizations with loose coalitions and sub-organizations of passionate members dedicated to the issue. For other groups, like Fair Economy Illinois, the battle against fracking is part of a larger crusade to hold corporations accountable for the costs they impose on others. The little greens have supplied much of the manpower and emotional urgency that has characterized the public hearings. Despite the fact that there is no clear thread that binds these groups together, they have managed to present a remarkably united and aggressive front in the face of the looming reality of hydraulic fracturing in Illinois.
SAFE (Southern Illinoisans Against Fracking our Environment) is one of the more prominent of the eclectic little greens. A self-declared “champion for the local people,” SAFE is a group of dedicated residents of Southern Illinois who demand nothing less than a statewide moratorium on fracking. These Southern Illinois residents see themselves as ground zero of the battle over what they call “the latest and arguably the most environmentally destructive and health-threatening technology to devastate people’s resources, homes, and communities.” SAFE has styled itself as a bastion of democracy and a way to mobilize and unite communities in the protection of their constitutional rights against what they see as an increasingly impersonal system of closed-door negotiations.
Many members of SAFE feel betrayed by the “big greens” that sat at the table with legislators and industry lobbyists to write IHFRA. SAFE spokesperson Annette McMichael told me that SAFE never felt it had a seat at the table. McMichael was disappointed that environmental groups hadn’t pushed harder to ban fracking in Illinois altogether. A bill in the Illinois State Senate (SB-630) that would have banned fracking died in committee and had never been seriously considered. As McMichael put it, the citizens whose lives were at stake of being irreparably damaged emerged from the process ignored, hurt, and disillusioned about the process that the “big greens” had dominated.
SAFE doesn’t think it needs the big greens to keep pushing for a fracking ban—McMichael said that SAFE had no dialogue with them at present, and “certainly would be uninterested in working with them unless they were working on our agenda, which is to ban fracking.” She noted that SAFE had successfully pressured the IDNR to increase the number of public hearings and continues to educate and mobilize citizens for a ban on fracking. Dawn Dannenbring, leader of Illinois People’s Action, a group closely affiliated with SAFE, said, “Every legislator we met with said they were encouraged by the Sierra Club to vote for the regulatory bill, or as we call it, the deregulatory bill.”
Large environmental groups have a differing take on the proceedings. Sierra Club Illinois is one of the “big greens” that had helped pass legislation that had been widely hailed one of the toughest regulatory restrictions on hydraulic fracturing across the country. Referring to the small environmental groups, Terri Treacy, a representative for Sierra Club Illinois said, “I’m not sure how much good they’re doing.” When asked about Sierra Club Illinois’ relationship with the little greens, Treacy said, “Many of those little greens really “don’t want anything,” no regulation, or legislation at all.” From the perspective of the large environmental organizations, the little greens are a passionate, but not particularly productive, wing of the opposition. Instead of acknowledging the political and economic reality of fracking, these groups are still trying to fight legislation that has already passed. Treacy characterized the groups as uncompromising, explaining, “It’s hard to work with groups who don’t want anything.”
Not everyone agrees with the perception that a schism exists in the environmental community in Illinois over the issue of fracking. Brian Sauder, policy director of Faith in Place, painted a picture of a more conciliatory relationship. Faith in Place, which represents religious organizations, has been a longstanding advocate for the “strictest possible environmental regulations.” Sauder played down the idea that a schism existed between the two wings of the environmental community, noting that Faith in Place was cheering on the small environmental groups in their fight. As for the moratorium bill that had died in committee, Sauder explained that it simply didn’t have enough votes. Indeed, by passing IHFRA, Sauder argued that Faith in Place and the three other big greens had helped save Illinois from the “wild west” it had been before, where anybody could drill with a $200 permit. But Sauder neglected to name any specific collaborations that his organization had with small environmental groups.
In recent months, the big greens have adopted a new tone, becoming more critical of the proposed regulations. In November, the Environmental Law and Policy Center updated their largely favorable overview of the Illinois hydraulic fracturing law with a headnote proclaiming that “draft rules undermine many of the critical protections contained in the state law” and encouraged Illinoisans to attend hearings and “request that the rules be amended to reflect the protections outlined in state law.” And the little greens, with their active on-the-ground networks, are supplying much of the manpower that are packing the public hearing rooms.
Despite differences, environmental groups, big and little, share many of the same concerns: low fines for violations of the regulations, large loopholes for frackwater storage, and inadequate emergency response and disclosure procedures. As grassroots groups bused members to public hearings, the big greens have been active as well, providing overviews of the rules’ problems online and giving Illinoisans simple ways to send pre-written letters to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Large environmental groups also released an extensive and technical analysis critical of the proposed regulations.
Whether or not the little and big greens can organize together will determine the effectiveness of the response from the environmental community to IDNR’s interpretation of the rules. Oil and gas companies are pushing to speed the process along so that they can begin drilling. Environmental groups are already fighting an uphill battle against the coming wave of drilling, especially in the southern part of the state. Unless they can reconcile the differences between them, the little and big greens will be steamrolled by the reality of fracking in Illinois.
Cracks in the Basin – Part 2: Big Greens, Little Greens, and A Fractured Opposition is the second chapter in a longer series by Gate staff writers, Patrick Reilly and Elaine Yao. Part 3 will be covered by Patrick and published on February 5.
Table of Contents: Cracks in the Basin