One day after the American Petroleum Institute celebrated fracking’s 65th birthday across social media, residents in Johnson County Illinois voted against a measure that would have effectively banned fracking in their community.
The southern Illinois county is home to just 12,000 people, but sits atop of the coveted “New Albany Shale” of the Illinois Basin. The shale could hold up to 300 billion barrels of oil.
The referendum question in Johnson County asked: “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?” Fifty-eight percent of voters said “no.”
The referendum was organized by two anti-fracking groups — Southern Illinoisans Against Fracking Our Environment (SAFE) and the Community Environment Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) of Pennsylvania. The groups argued that fracking would endanger local groundwater supplies and warned against the risk of earthquakes in the area, which has many fault lines. SAFE collected over 1,000 signatures in support of the ban — three times as many as needed to put the issue to a vote.
The fracking ballot question was a nonbinding referendum, intended only to serve as a recommendation to the county’s three commissioners.
Los Angeles has passed a moratorium against fracking, as have several cities in Colorado and Texas.
Several local politicians, business groups, and labor unions actively campaigned against the measure, claiming it would restrict business and hurt the economy in an area where unemployment is at ten percent.
Southern Illinois is no stranger to oil and gas development. The first big oil boom in the region dates back to the early 1900s. Since then, about 4 billion barrels of oil and 4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas have been extracted using conventional vertical wells. But the region hasn’t been a major player in domestic production since World War II. That could be about to change. Industry experts have likened the New Albany Shale to the Elm Coulee Bakken of Montana, which, to date, has produced 123 million barrels of oil from horizontal wells.
In June, 2013 Illinois passed a bill giving the green light to fracking operators. In November, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources published draft rules and got over 30,000 public comments in response. Environmental groups have criticized the DNR for rushing the process so that fracking can get started — and say that the wording of the regulations is in many places so poorly defined as to make them meaningless. The regulations also weaken some of the points environmental groups fought to have included in the bill, like the provision that fracking wastewater be stored in tanks, not open-air pits. The draft regulations, however, effectively allow wastewater to be stored in open-air pits in unspecified emergency cases for unspecified periods of time.
Phyllis Oliver, a retired schoolteacher in Cypress, IL, told the Cape Girardeau Southeast Missourian that the fracking debate was causing tensions to run high in Johnson County.
“I never thought Johnson County would get so … People get so angry with each other,” she said. “I don’t want to keep anyone from making money, but money isn’t worth anything if you can’t drink the water or breathe the air.”
Supporters of the fracking ban are discouraged by the ballot vote, but say that the fight is far from over.
“I have no financial incentive to stop fracking in Johnson County,” Tony Gerard, from Vienna, IL, told local radio station krcu. “I’m totally in it for the welfare of the county I love, my lifestyle and the people I love. We’re not about to give up. We’re going to keep on fighting this out-of-state industry that’s wrought so much devastation on other communities.”