Cracks in the Basin - Part 3: “The Whole County is Fracked”

 /  Feb. 6, 2014, 11:21 a.m.


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The Ohio River cuts Southern Illinois into a wide W. Just above its crest sits Johnson County, an 18-mile-wide rectangle home to nearly thirteen-thousand Illinoisans.  With rolling hills and the Shawnee National Forest, it bears less resemblance to the farmland that sprawls across most of Illinois than to the wooded corner of northeast Pennsylvania that Josh Fox made famous in the documentary, Gasland. Fittingly enough, Johnson County may soon become the epicenter of Illinois’s fracking industry—but only after a spirited show of resistance.

Woolsey Operating Co., LLC encountered little opposition here in early 2012, when it quietly began leasing land for frack pads. In fact, one Johnson County farmer was happy to sign over 1,300 acres to the Wichita-based energy firm. “I really don’t care if I get a well or not,” boasted Thomas Trover, 69. “I got my $60,000.” In a county with a 10 percent unemployment and 15 percent poverty rate, Mr. Trover had plenty of company. Western Land Services, a real estate firm specializing in energy development, has secured over one-thousand leases covering hundreds of thousands of acres across Southern Illinois. According to CEO John Wilson, responses like Mr. Trover’s are the norm. “Overall, I’d say the vast majority of the people we’ve contacted are in favor of oil and gas,” he explains.

[caption id="attachment_836" align="alignleft" width="269"]Johnson County is located in southern Illinois in an area known locally as "Little Egypt." Johnson County is located in southern Illinois in an area known locally as "Little Egypt."[/caption]

Annette McMichael is not one of them. After running their own advertising agency and raising four children, Mrs. McMichael and her husband had looked forward to a peaceful retirement on their 10-acre wooded property in Johnson County. With several of their neighbors having signed leases with Woolsey, she’s now fighting to keep that land free from big-rig trucks and production towers. A vocal member of Southern Illinoisans Against Fracking (SAFE), McMichael makes clear that “I’m very laid back, and nothing worries me except this…if they frack there our property will be worthless, we won’t be able to sell it, and we really don’t want to be anywhere else.” With Woolsey already owning a majority of the mineral rights in Johnson County, McMichael laments, “the whole county is fracked.”

Wayne Woolsey is no stranger to these criticisms. The geologist and president of Woolsey Corporation began a phone interview by pointing out that “What you’ve seen on the media [about fracking] I completely disagree with.” After forty-two years of experience with hydraulic drilling in Kansas and Oklahoma, he went on to explain, Woolsey could safely unlock the shale of the Illinois Basin. Over the phone and in company publications, Dr. Woolsey aggressively touts the benefits of fracking: energy independence, transition to a cleaner-burning fossil fuel, and, above all, more money for state and local governments. “Most of the counties and communities within Illinois will have an economic opportunity due to the capital investment required for development, the ongoing operational activities and the associated revenue from oil and gas production,” stated the Woolsey Operating Company.

Asked about the leases already signed in Johnson County, Mr. Woolsey explained that, “We pay a significant price for a four-year-term lease to allow us time to evaluate and develop a lease. If production is established it will hold the acreage until production ceases.” In other words, according to an analysis of one Woolsey lease by Midwest Energy News, “If oil or gas is being extracted and sold on the market, the lease extends indefinitely,” potentially beyond four years. That prospect alarms McMichael and her allies, but hasn’t fazed some of Woolsey’s supporters in Johnson County.  One of them, retired Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) employee Dr. Billy Fairless, reassured his fellow residents “I have never heard of a problem with fracking in Western Kentucky, Southern Indiana, Southern Illinois and I would have known because I was the guy who collected the scientific data to enforce it if there was a problem.”

The task of reconciling these views fell to Johnson County’s Board of Commissioners: Jeff Mears, Ernie Henshaw, and Phil Stewart. Sitting behind a banner of the local high school mascot, the Blackcats, the three commissioners heard opinions from Dr. Fairless, Mrs. McMichael, and every resident in between. As the debate over fracking in Illinois reached a fever pitch in Springfield and Chicago, they began to guide Johnson County through its own series of increasingly contentious decisions.

The first came on April 10, when commissioners Mears and Henshaw voted for a resolution to support a statewide, one-year moratorium on fracking. After the meeting, Henshaw made clear that, “I’m not anti-fracking, but yet I do have some concerns and I think that a one-year moratorium is a substantial amount of time for us to look at where we’re going.” Jeff Mears, the Board chairman, added that, “I feel we’ve done the right thing.” Stewart, the lone dissenter, had been convinced by Woolsey employees that fracking promised great benefits for the county. Even so, the moratorium resolution sent a clear, if symbolic, message to Springfield: the center of a potential Illinois fracking boom wanted more time to assess the risks.

The message fell on deaf ears. On June 17, after proposals for a statewide ban or moratorium crashed and burned, Governor Pat Quinn signed the Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Regulatory Act (IHFRA) into law. John Bradley (D), state representative in neighboring Williamson County, sponsored the bill, citing split opinions within Illinois’s fracking region. “I have heard no comments from Rep. Bradley in our county concerning this subject,” Mears recalls.

Mears did, however, hear plenty from SAFE and its allies. On October 21, the self-proclaimed “champion for the local people” presented the Board of Commissioners with an audacious proposal: a countywide referendum that, if successful, would compel the Board to draft a Community Bill of Rights—the first step towards a local fracking ban.

For some of the Illinois anti-fracking movement’s eclectic groups, Johnson County was simply the latest front in a broader push for environmental justice. “We work with communities to assert…their inalienable fundamental rights and to exert those rights in their own communities,” explained Natalie Long of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. Groups such as SAFE, however, are opposed specifically to fracking.

After the commissioners had agreed to the resolution, SAFE’s Stephen Nickels phrased it as a question: “Should the peoples’ right to local self government be asserted by Johnson County to ban corporate fracking as a violation of their rights to health and safety?”

Nickels’s question had profound implications for Johnson County residents, who proved eager to respond. Per county rules, Nickels and company had until December 16 to collect 374 signatures for a March 16 ballot initiative. On December 1, the bill’s supporters presented the Johnson County Clerk’s Office with 1,001 signatures. In a county with just over 10,000 residents eligible to vote, the initiative stands a fighting chance. The prospect of a ban in prime fracking territory has already energized SAFE, whose efforts for a statewide ban or moratorium have produced few results.

Until March, however, these supporters can do little but wait. “For lack of a better term, we’re kind of in a holding pattern right now,” explained Commissioner Ernie Henshaw in a phone interview. With the ballot initiative still over a month away, Henshaw and his colleagues are already pondering their next steps. If a fracking ban emerges from the Community Bill of Rights, Johnson County will join a small but growing group of localities with similar bans whose experiences indicate a long legal battle ahead. “I think energy companies and the state of Illinois will go after us,” predicts Henshaw. “We will turn to our state attorney for advice.”

A Johnson County ban could become IHFRA’s first major test. Environmental law professor Trish McCubbin, skeptical of its chances, cautions that IHFRA “does not grant the power to ban to any counties.” Mr. Woolsey chimed in, asserting “We have not encountered any bans in our 42 years of operations… Johnson County needs to seek the truth about fracture treating.”

If Johnson County voters side with Woolsey, they will soon face a new reality: the arrival of big-rig trucks and risk of explosive blowouts in a county connected by winding rural roads and reliant on what Mears calls “normal ‘small town’ EMS and fire response teams.” The county will have to manage these risks with limited resources. Moreover, despite Woolesy’s promises of a financial windfall, Montana-based firm Headwaters Economics found that local governments typically wait two years to collect the bulk of tax revenue from fracking. With such a prospect in mind, the Board of Commissioners recently proposed the creation of a fracking oversight committee for the county.

SAFE quickly cried foul. “The commissioners previously stated they would listen to the will of the people,” wrote Natalie Long in a January 5 press release. “They should keep their word, and wait to act on the issue of fracking until they hear the people’s will expressed in the primary election in March 2014…If the commissioners vote to add yet another layer of bureaucracy to this issue, then the message will be clear: the commissioners never intended to take the people’s will seriously.”

The resolution eventually passed, but sore feelings remain. In a long, strongly-worded email to this correspondent, Commissioner Mears voiced annoyance at “the lack of involvement from the oil and gas industry,” but added that he was “equally annoyed at the groups opposing the process because of all the false information they are actively giving the residents of this county concerning our authority and abilities to regulate fracking… at this time we DO NOT have the authority to ban this process and until further notice we will act accordingly.”

Indeed, it’s doubtful that Johnson County will ever have the jurisdiction to ban fracking. At odds with corporate interests in Wichita, legislative action in Springfield, and strident demonstrators at his doorstep, Commissioner Mears is trying to make the most of his available options. With little time left for the idealistic protests led by SAFE and its allies, Mears and his colleagues must, as a precaution, assume that fracking wells will eventually bore into Johnson County’s rolling hills. “At the end of the day we live here, work here, raise our families here and we will continue to do so,” he explained in the same email. “But it is our job and responsibility in this situation to be as ready and prepared as we can be for whatever happens.”

Cracks in the Basin – Part 3: "The Whole County is Fracked" is the third chapter in a longer series by Gate staff writers, Patrick Reilly and Elaine Yao.

Table of Contents: Cracks in the Basin

Part 1: Illinois: A “National Model”?

Part 2: Big Greens, Little Greens, and a Fractured Opposition

Part 3: “The Whole County is Fracked”

Part 4: Epilogue: “Literally divided now”


Patrick Reilly


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