Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Opposition to fracking in Southern Illinois remains resilient

The Johnson County commissioners met for a regularly scheduled meeting Monday in which members of the grass-roots organization SAFE, Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment, spoke before the board in hopes of passing a resolution to allow an initiative against fracking on the March ballot.

Voters in Johnson County would not necessarily vote “yea” or “nay” to allow hydraulic fracturing to occur or not, they instead would vote on an initiative compelling the board to draft a Community Bill of Rights.

Johnson County resident and SAFE steering committee member Stephen Nickels spoke before the board Monday afternoon to introduce the ballot-initiative request saying 160 other communities in six other states have passed similar measures.

“SAFE has talked with two of the three commissioners and both have indicated they would have a desire or willingness to put before the people of Johnson County a simple ballot initiative that would read something to the effect of, ‘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 said after the meeting.

Nickels said that SAFE would work with the commissioners to craft the actual wording of the question proposed for the March ballot and it would be the mission of SAFE to educate the community as to what they were voting on.

“We see this issue as not just a single-issue initiative,” Nickels said.  “If the ballot initiative were to be placed on the ballot and were to pass it would give the commissioners an indication that the voters of Johnson County would be in favor of their taking back from the State Government and the Federal Government their ability to govern what happens within the borders of Johnson County; a right they do not currently have.”

The end result of a favorable vote would lead to a community Bill of Rights, Nickels said, which would provide Johnson County an ability to assert further control over the actions of corporations within its borders.  Community rights coordinator Natalie Long, who joined Nickels at Monday’s meeting, said SAFE is working with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) to draft such Bill of Rights.

“One of the things that we do is, we work with communities to assert their rights that they have, their inalienable fundamental rights and to exert those rights in their own communities,” Long said.

Nickels and Long said the ability to further govern corporate activity within the borders of Johnson County could lead to a ban on hydraulic fracturing, a process SAFE has opposed since its proposed introduction in Illinois last year.  Illinois passed the Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Regulatory Act in June with bi-partisan support, which Gov. Pat Quinn later signed.  Despite its claim in creating the “nation’s strongest environmental protections” to regulated hydraulic fracturing, SAFE argues the process threatens the environment and health of residents even under the best of circumstances.

Speaking in an interview with local television media WSIL 3, commissioner Ernie Henshaw did not fully endorse fracking or fully oppose fracking saying the process could lead to jobs in the economically depressed areas of Southern Illinois.

“There’s a lot of things to look at. We don’t want to jump into anything without doing our homework, [we] want to see if it’s an opportunity worth while or something we don’t wanna do,” Henshaw said in the interview.

While fracking has not yet begun in Southern Illinois, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), the agency charged with developing regulations for high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing in Illinois, recently opened the permit application and registration process for the practice.  The IDNR said they are only accepting registration and not issuing permits until after the Illinois General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules approves the draft administrative rules.

“The registration is required under provisions of Illinois’ new Hydraulic Fracturing Regulatory Act,” IDNR spokesperson Chris McCloud said in an Oct. 3 press release. “Those interested in applying for hydraulic fracturing permits must submit the registration form at least 30 days prior to submitting their first permit application.”

The IDNR was compelled by the Regulatory Act to make the registration forms available by Sept. 15, 2013, in which registration is a required step in applying for a permit to frack in Illinois.

As Illinois moves forward in allowing the high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing permit process to begin, the probability of fracking in Johnson County draws certain as more than 200 landowners have already leased their mineral rights to energy companies such as Woolsey Energy Corporation out of Wichita, Kan.  Residents of Johnson County who have not leased their mineral rights fear that fracking could occur on their property against their will due to a claim of forced pooling by the energy corporations who have leased more than 51-percent of the property surrounding them.  This “intrusive” practice is one such feature a Community Bill of Rights would protect residents of Johnson County from, said SAFE.

Nickels said a Community Bill of Rights in other communities have given the individual governmental entities the right to govern corporate activity within their borders.

“It would give the Johnson County Board, for instance, the right to ban fracking within Johnson County as a violation of the health and safety of the voters of Johnson County,” Nickels said.  “And there is a lot of issues that would flow from that, but that’s the basic one.”