Fracking is such a dirty word. As in “No Fracking Way,” “Frack Shell,” “Get the Frack out of Sussex,” “Don’t Frack with Our Water” and, well, you get the idea.
The hostile slogans are coined by opponents to fracking, a shorthand for hydraulic fracturing, a very dirty method for extracting the crude oil and natural gas that’s locked into deep pools beneath a layer of shale or coal.
Those aiming to create the next fracking boom in Southern Illinois took a big step forward on Nov. 6. After several years of pitched battles in Springfield’s corridors of power, the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules put its rubber stamp of final approval on the controversial set of new regulations that will allow permits to be issued and drilling to begin.
About 30 or so fractivists, those who don’t want the verdant Southern Illinois fields and forests to be ravaged in the name of cheap energy, showed up at the Bilandic Building in Chicago to shine a little light on the usually unnoticed JCAR proceedings. Organizations represented included Frack Free Illinois; Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment ; Rising Tide, a Chicago-based group that favors direct-action tactics in the fight against climate change; Tar Sands Free Midwest; the Shawnee Forest Sentinels and many other groups and individuals. Dr. Lora Chamberlain, a leading spokeswoman for Frack Free Illinois, estimates there are 50,000 fractivists statewide in these groups’ networks.
Many of those who came were stunned by the procedure that finalized the regulations, which moved forward in a batch of about 30 sets of unrelated new rules. None of these new regulations, which now have the force of law, were referred to by name or number in the motion that carried them through. In a nod to the anti-fracking forces, one committee member abstained – state Sen. Ira Silverstein, D-Chicago. The rest voted for the motion. And with that, the legislators headed for the door.
The old jobs-versus-the-environment fallacy
The benefits of fracking are short term, but tantalizing. This relatively new way of fossil fuel extraction is:
- Making the U.S. less dependent on foreign oil, and driving down the price of gasoline at the pump.
- Driving the price of natural gas (methane) sharply downward. Such prodigious amounts of this gas have been released in fracking that some drillers are just sucking up the petroleum and flaring off the gas that is released in the process, because they would lose money by capturing and selling it.
- Providing jobs and local boom economies in places that were plagued by joblessness and poverty, most notably in South Dakota, Ohio and Texas as well as many other locations.
Now if the profits were being heavily taxed, and the government was using those revenues to invest in sustainable energy production, one might argue that the negatives are worth bearing for a while.
But the negatives are multifold and dire:
- Toxic chemicals, some of which are used in the process and others released by it, are finding their way into the air and water.
- The land surrounding the drilling is being devastated.
- The equipment is spewing pollution, as are the vehicles used to bring workers and materials in and out of the area: By one estimate, “Each gas well requires an average of 400 tanker trucks to carry water and supplies to and from the site.”
- Earthquakes (mostly small ones, so far) appear to be increasing in frequency near fracking fields, and evidence is mounting that they are a direct result of the process.
- Workers are getting injured at a high rate in fracking operations.
- Though burning natural gas is much cleaner than burning coal or petroleum products, when methane is released directly into the atmosphere, and that happens frequently from fracking wells, it is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Unfortunately the profits from all this are not being singled out for extra taxation, and thus won’t be funding the transition to an economy that runs on non-fossil-fuel energy.
Oil and gas abounds beneath Southern Illinois ground
Here in Illinois, the fracking engine is revving up. “About $100 million has been spent and up to half a million acres leased for exploration of shale plays in the Illinois Basin,” according to Midwest Energy News. Most of that activity has come since 2011, as advances in fracking technology have made the state’s oil fields a more inviting target.
By 2012 the energy extraction industry was pushing legislation in the Illinois General Assembly through a gang of well-paid lobbyists that could give it free reign to exploit potential deposits. And it was willing to pay in campaign contributions and other political tributes to get lawmakers on its side. An analysis done for Frack Free Illinois found JCAR members had received more than $600,000 in campaign money for the 2014 elections from “fracking-related industries and organizations.”
Despite the political heft of the energy industry, their powerful push to dive headlong into fracking has been slowed by an active and growing opposition. The opposition is coming from a number of sources:
- Traditional environmentalists;
- A grassroots movement of residents and landowners who live on or near potential well sites, and who have become involved as they learned about the devastation other communities have suffered at the hands of the frackers; and
- Climate activists.
The story of Illinoisans’ opposition is still being written.
Rule making ruled by politics
By late 2012 fractivists, represented by the Sierra Club and other established environmental groups, had gained a seat at the table to negotiate what would be written into the Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Regulatory Act. In what some of the activists call a betrayal and others a bow to the reality of the situation, the Sierra Club, giving cover to legislators with green constituencies, agreed to support the bill that then became law in the summer of 2013.
Gov. Pat Quinn signed the bill, which authorized the executive branch to issue permits and regulate fracking operations. The rule-making process began, headed by the state’s Department of Natural Resources. A first draft was published, with rules that might as well have been written by the industry. But the activists mobilized and some 30,000 public-input comments were thrown at DNR. Back to the drawing board the agency went and in the summer of 2014 published a second draft of the regulations that were much tighter, though not tight enough for most fractivists. Still, it was progress, pushed forward from the grassroots.
Then it was JCAR’s turn. That body reviews administrative rules to make sure state agencies have followed the intent of legislation when they write the rules.
In doing so JCAR has the authority to rewrite the rules, and in this case, Dr. Chamberlain, of Frack Free Illinois, was told after the above-mentioned meeting ended, that there were 400 changes from DNR’s strengthened second draft, most of which were expected to water it down to the benefit of the frackers. The final rules were required to be published in the Illinois Register by Nov. 15.
“We will resist this with our bodies, our hearts and our minds,” Braze Smith, an organic farmer who traveled six hours from Union County to be at the hearing, told the Chicago Tribune. “We will block this; we will chain ourselves to trucks.”
Opponents vow to battle on
Smith, who co-founded the Shawnee Forest Sentinels, believes that such direct-action tactics are the best remaining alternative to stop the frackers and that there are significant numbers of Southern Illinoisans who will join in. And Rising Tide is among those likely to support such tactics.
Before it comes to that, Chamberlain and her allies have some ideas about how to slow the industry down. First, there will be legal challenges to the process, including to the sleight-of-hand tactics JCAR used to finalize the rules, to the regulations themselves and to the law.
The fractivists will encourage Southern Illinois counties and municipalities to slow the frackers down by putting restrictive traffic, noise, zoning and land-use measures on the books.
Another strategy Chamberlain finds potentially promising is “community rights,” the proposition that local governments have the right to decide what their land will be used for, despite state or federal laws to the contrary.
In that vein activists in far Southern Illinois’ Johnson County got an advisory referendum on the March 2014 ballot that would have told the three county commissioners that their constituents wanted them to enact a fracking ban. But the “no” vote in that high-unemployment region was 58 percent.
A number of local governments around the country have passed fracking moratoriums, including Los Angeles and several cities in Colorado and Texas
It isn’t yet clear whether community rights measures will stand up to legal challenges.
But it’s very clear that the anti-fracking forces will continue to stand up to the frackers.