Cracks in the Basin – Part 4: Epilogue: “Literally divided now”

 /  April 19, 2014, 10:07 a.m.


Late on the afternoon of March 24, workers at BP’s Whiting, Indiana oil refinery noticed a colorful sheen on the surface of Lake Michigan. Within hours, EPA crews had arrived to assess the damage: 39 barrels spilled, hardly the next Deepwater Horizon. Yet the presence of heavy “tar sand” oil in the source of drinking water for over 3 million Chicagoans gave residents pause. Calling Lake Michigan “Our Yosemite Park, our Grand Canyon,” Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel demanded “a report on what happened, how it happened, why did it happen, how much happened and how do you prevent it from ever happening again.”

Since the incident, other Illinoisans have sought similar answers. With the state bracing for the commencement of large-scale oil and gas production, Frack-Free Illinois cast the Whiting spill as a taste of things to come. Drawing a connection between the heavy Canadian crude processed at Whiting and the natural gas of the Illinois shale, the environmental group warned on its Facebook page that “Tar sands and frack oil are just two heads of the same monster: The carbon monster.”

Many Illinoisans would likely take issue with Frack-Free’s colorful assessment. However, few would argue that the Whiting spill had only worsened their state’s energy dilemma. In the two months since The Gate last reported on the Illinois fracking controversy, media attention has turned to other pockets of local resistance, particularly Los Angeles’s announcement of a city-wide moratorium on the practice. However, recent developments from Whiting to Johnson County and beyond have given new urgency to Illinois’s fracking debate.

One crucial shift took place not in Chicago or Springfield, but halfway around the globe. In recent weeks, as Russian troops rolled into Crimea and Vladimir Putin threatened Ukraine with a gas shutoff, policy makers proposed that America begin exporting natural gas to its embattled European ally. Illinois Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL)cautioned lawmakers not to view his state’s shale basin as a diplomatic asset. After a recent visit to Kiev, he concluded instead that “the notion that natural gas exports will have benefit for Ukraine or any nation in the near term may be wishful thinking.” Yet Durban’s views are in the minority. As America seeks to counter Russian expansion in an age of tight military budgets, shale basins across the country will likely face greater pressure to produce for foreign markets.

None of this has been lost on Illinois anti-fracking groups. As the furor over the proposed administrative rules died down, they wasted no time regrouping and reimagining a strategy. Chicago-based Frack-Free Illinois has taken the lead on a “divide and conquer” legislative campaign. Abandoning their vocal and unilateral condemnation of IHFRA (the Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Regulatory Bill) and repeated calls for an absolute moratorium, Frack-Free Illinois has begun seeking sponsors for twelve regulatory bills to target specific concerns about the practice of hydraulic fracturing.

These so-called “Green Dozen” bills target everything from the proposed distance between schools and fracking sites to the two-year “grace period” on oil and gas taxes. In a marked departure from earlier, often messy campaigns in support of a statewide ban or against the regulations drafted by the IDNR, the “Green Dozen” bills present a new brand of Illinois environmentalism: well-researched, politically savvy, and aware of the practical challenges ahead.

Frack-Free Illinois’ endgame remains the same: the group still prefers an unconditional fracking ban, and indeed, one of the “Green Dozen” bills (SB3386) provides for a ban on all fracturing operations. But this bill is the exception, not the norm. By targeting other, more specific concerns, Frack-Free Illinois hopes to achieve greater legislative success, containing the dangers of fracking as best it can. With this change of strategy, Frack-Free appears to have traded its original, lofty goals for smaller, more pragmatic gains.

As fracking’s opponents test this new strategy in Springfield, their recent experience in Johnson County should serve as a cautionary tale. As the much-anticipated March 18 ballot initiative approached, pro-frackers across Illinois rallied against the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund’s (CELDF’s) plans. The Illinois Chamber of Commerce and American Petroleum Institute poured over $23,000 into a mass-mailing campaign, while Commissioner Phil Stewart—having signed thousands of acres over to Woolsey Energy—organized a committee of concerned residents in opposition. After three contentious months, the ballot asked over 3,800 Johnson County voters if they would support a Community Bill of Rights and, perhaps, a county-wide fracking ban.

58 percent of those voters answered “No.”

The initiative’s backers quickly cried foul. Annette McMichael charged the Chamber of Commerce with “spreading disinformation” about the initiative, while blaming its failure on a “media blackout” (Johnson County’s two newspapers, The Vienna Times and the Goreville Gazette, had both refused to run anti-fracking ads in the weeks leading up to the vote. The Gazette’s editor eventually resigned in protest). Like their allies at the state level, Johnson County environmentalists quickly regrouped and changed tactics. Less than a week after the vote, they presented the Board of Commissioners with a draft ordinance to enact the same “Community Bill of Rights” that had just failed at the polls. Making the case for their continued relevance, resident Kris Perlmann contended that “there are citizens of Johnson County who are under threat from this practice of fracking.”

Commissioner Jeff Mears agrees. “I am not for hydraulic fracturing in my county because of all the unknown long-term effects and ‘worse case scenarios’ no one from the industry likes to address,” he explained in an email. Yet with his constituents voicing their will at the polls—and, increasingly, in Woolsey Energy lease forms—Mears has also decided to switch tactics. “It is my personal belief that we will not be able to ban fracking in Johnson County…We have to work hard and smart to ensure we protect our county infrastructure.” To this end, Mears and Henshaw have forged ahead with plans for a fracking oversight committee; it’s doubtful whether CELDF can count on their support for this second attempt at a local ban.

Whichever side ultimately wins in this microcosm of Illinois’s fracking debate, it will have to mend relations with a bitterly divided community. “We have long time neighbors and friends who are literally divided now,” Mears wrote in the same email. Despite his concerns over fracking, he also had harsh words for CELDF’s heavy-handed, often insensitive approach to the issue. The Fund, he explained, had “come to our county with their bigger agenda in tow…leading local residents down a misleading path of information.” CELDF’s grandiose ballot 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 and safety?”—had not helped. In fact, Mears believes that “Everything about this whole ‘campaign’ was skewed right down to the ballot initiative question itself!”

With so much bitterness, it’s easy to forget the great promise of IHFRA. Less than a year ago, it appeared that environmentalists and industry had finally come to an understanding on one of most controversial innovations in recent memory. Yet as loopholes emerged and concerned environmentalists mobilized, this compromise devolved into a heated debate over America’s energy future. After countless studies, petitions, and protests, that future has only drawn closer for Illinois residents. Four months after reporting began for this series, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources is still sorting through nearly 32,000 public comments on IHFRA’s draft regulations. As the much-debated rules inch towards completion, oil and gas rigs stand ready to pry into the Illinois Shale Basin. When they do, Illinois’s tortured experiment with regulated fracking will finally have an outcome.

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 Elaine Yao


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