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Fractured community

Environmental groups that backed Illinois fracking legislation say, ‘It was a nuanced decision in the political reality’

story and photographs by Jamey Dunn

The effects of horizontal high-volume fracturing are as of yet unknown, but the battle over it in Illinois has caused deep rifts among environmental and community activists.

“Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame!” chanted protestors after Senate Bill 1715 was approved unanimously by a House committee in May. The bill went on to pass in both the House and Senate by wide margins. The measure was signed by Gov. Pat Quinn.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan, the Illinois Farm Bureau and several labor unions and business groups supported it. The Natural Resources Defense Council, the Illinois Environmental Council and the Illinois Sierra Club also back it.

If you haven’t been following the debate over fracking, you might find those last three supporters a bit surprising. The protestors who visited the Capitol during the legislature’s spring session find it infuriating that those big-name environmental groups support a bill to regulate fracking. They have been called “complicit” and accused of selling out their principles and providing cover for lawmakers to ignore legislation that would put a moratorium on fracking.

“The idea that environmental groups cooperated with industry would be one word for it; I would call it appeasement and capitulation,” says Sandra Steingraber, author and scholar in residence at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. Steingraber was born and raised in Illinois. She still has family living in the state, including her mother. New York lawmakers have been weighing the issue for about four years. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has still not made a public decision on fracking but has instead called for further study. Steingraber and many others would like the see Illinois take a similar course of action.

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, is a process used to extract oil and natural gas by pumping water, chemicals and sand into the ground. The water fractures a source rock, allowing gas or oil to escape and be collected. Sand is used to hold the cracks in the rock open. Chemicals are added to the water for a variety of reasons, such as disinfection, lubrication and making the water thicker to keep the sand from sinking. Horizontal drilling allows oil and gas companies to permeate rock along a horizontal line, which can sometimes stretch for miles. High-volume fracking operations pump hundreds of thousands of gallons of fluid — or sometimes millions of gallons — into the ground. Put all of those technologies and practices together, and you have horizontal high-volume fracturing.

According to the National Conference of State Legislators, more than 100 bills across 19 states have been introduced relating to hydraulic fracturing since October 2010. The National Resource Defense Council reports that fracking has occurred in 32 states.

Environmental groups that worked on the Illinois bill are in no way thrilled about the prospect of fracking in Illinois. They all say they support a moratorium as the state’s best option for keeping its landscape and residents safe from the dangers of fracking, but they say they recognized the writing on the wall that the push for fracking was moving forward with or without them. So they participated in talks to make sure that the state did not end up with a law that was written by the oil and gas industries.

“The environmental community is not endorsing high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, nor are we encouraging it in the state. This legislation does not open the gates for fracking to come into Illinois. The gates are already open,” says Jennifer Walling, executive director for the Illinois Environmental Council. “We do believe that if fracking is going to occur in this state, significant environmental regulation must be in place to offer protections to the health, safety and welfare of Illinois residents.”

Energy companies have spent millions leasing mineral rights in southern Illinois. The NRDC confirmed through a Freedom of Information Act request that high-volume fracking is already taking place in the southeastern part of the state. According to an application filed with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, more than 640,000 gallons of fluid were pumped down a well owned by Campbell Energy in White County.

SB 1715 will create standards for drilling wells, which are constructed with cement casings to prevent fracking fluids from leaking into groundwater. The measure would require well operators to disclose the chemicals they use to the Department of Natural Resources. The list would be made public on the agency’s website. Proprietary information, such as the exact formula for fracking fluids would be given to the state agency but not made public. The plan requires water testing before and after fracking begins. If fracking chemicals are found in local water, it would be assumed that it was the fault of the fracking well operator, and the operator would be required to prove otherwise. Wastewater would have to be stored in an enclosed system. In many other states, it is stored in open pits.

The legislation also sets fees for permits at $13,500 per well. The money from the fees would go to the Department of Natural Resources and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to regulate fracking. The measure would set the tax on oil or gas extracted from fracking wells at 3 percent for the first two years of the life of a well and then on a sliding scale based on production. The bill offers a tax incentive that would reduce tax rates for companies that hire local workers. Supporters of the bill, including environmental groups, say it is the strictest in the nation.

Talks about fracking among Illinois officials and concerned civic groups have been going on for years. “Three years ago our congregations were concerned about fracking and concerned about fracking’s impact on the state of Illinois,” says Brian Sauder, policy director for Faith in Place, which, according to the organization’s mission statement, “inspires religious people of diverse faiths to care for the Earth through connection, education and advocacy.” He says he took these concerns to Sen. Mike Frerichs, a Champaign Democrat and a sponsor of SB 1715. “We did some research and found out about the status quo of no regulations [specifically geared at fracking],” Sauder says.

His group, along with the other environmental groups that supported the regulatory bill, first backed a moratorium that was introduced at the end of the spring legislative session last year. Sauder said that on the last day of session, the bill lacked the votes needed to pass. However the backing of the moratorium by some high-profile figures, including House Speaker Michael Madigan, was enough to stop a Senate-approved regulatory bill that was far less restrictive than SB 1715 from being called for a vote in the House. Sauder and others continued to lobby for the ban, even traveling the state in support of it. “We worked that roll call exhaustedly and again came up short,” he says. “I’m not sure people realize how many hours we spent working that moratorium bill.”

Sauder says his group and others decided they needed to be involved in talks that were taking place over a regulatory bill because the vote counts they were getting indicated that it could potentially pass without their input. “I think that the experience of working on the moratorium bill made us gain recognition that we are playing a risky game,” he says. “If we don’t take part in negotiations, a bill could come out without environmental protections in it and could pass despite our objections.

“It was a nuanced decision in the political reality,” he says.

But the people who continued to push for a moratorium after some environmental groups had come out publicly for the regulatory bill reject the idea that a ban is impossible. They say that the willingness of some high-profile groups to sit in on negotiations while also trying to lobby for a moratorium sent a mixed message. They argue that the revelation that fracking is already happening here is all the more reason to mobilize for a ban. “From my perspective, that’s like discovering a rapist in the community and deciding we need a law mandating that all those planning to commit sexual assault must wear condoms,” says Steingraber, who has been studying the effects of fracking on health for the last two years. “Saying that you want a moratorium while signaling your willingness to permit and regulate is not the way to get a moratorium.”

When a vocal push for a ban bubbled up to Springfield this spring, it was already too late for it to make much of an impact on lawmakers. “Unfortunately, I didn’t hear about it until mid-February. ... The fight for a regulatory bill was in the making long before any of us got wind of it,” says Mel Lamar, Illinois People’s Action leader. The group is a statewide faith-based organization whose mission is “to organize for justice in local communities and throughout Illinois’ urban and rural communities.”

“I guess we just didn’t have enough foot soldiers on the ground and have enough time to make enough noise,” Lamar says.

“The thing that killed us was the environmental groups supporting the industry bill,” says Dawn Dannenbring, the lead organizer for Illinois People’s Action’s environmental justice campaigns. “Every legislator we met with said they were encouraged by the Sierra Club to vote for the regulatory bill, or as we call it, the deregulatory bill.”

While some of the people who came to Springfield to lobby, hold rallies and stage protests against SB 1715 were working with established advocacy groups such as Illinois People’s Action, others were here on their own or working with all-volunteer organizations that sprang up specifically to address fracking. “I speak for a whole lot of people down there that don’t have the time and the opportunity to come up here because it costs a lot of money. They’re funneling some cash to me so that I can spend the night in a hotel and speak for everybody,” Union County resident Tabitha Tripp said at a rally outside of Quinn’s office in the Statehouse. “We’ve seen the boom-bust economies in southern Illinois for a long time. We don’t know how it’s going to affect our children 25 or 30 years down the road.”

Those advocates were struggling against one of the most powerful forces in the Statehouse, something known in the Illinois political sphere as an “agreed bill.” The agreed bill process is used to craft controversial legislation. Representatives of varying interests associated with the topic of the legislation duke it out behind closed doors until they come up with a plan everyone can live with. That deal is then presented in legislation that typically sails through both chambers with overwhelming support. It is often said in the Capitol that there is nothing lawmakers like more than an agreed bill because the interested parties have already done the work of hammering out the compromises and have removed most of the controversy with their endorsements.

Opponents say the proposal was crafted without input from southern Illinois community groups, scientists or public health experts. They argue that Illinois is allowing fracking without really knowing the extent of the possible dangers associated with it. The EPA’s inspector general, Arthur Elkins Jr., issued a warning for states trying to regulate fracking earlier this year. “With limited data, human health risks are uncertain; states may design incorrect or ineffective emission control strategies, and EPA’s decisions about regulating industry may be misinformed,” he told the Associated Press. The EPA is conducting a study on the impact fracking has on drinking water. The results are expected next year.

“It is illogical to claim that any set of regulations can sufficiently protect public health when you haven’t identified what the health threats are yet,” Steingraber says. “It compels the citizens of Illinois, including members of my own family, to serve as unconsenting subjects in a vast human experiment.”

But those who sat at the negotiating table in Illinois say scientists and experts were involved in the process. “I would disagree wholeheartedly with [Steingraber’s] statement,” says Mark Denzler, representing the Growing Resources and Opportunity for the Workforce in Illinois coalition, a business group supporting fracking in the state. He says scientists from the Illinois State Geological Survey and the Illinois State Water Survey and the NRDC, as well as regulatory experts from IDNR and IEPA, played a large role in creating the bill. “There were a lot of experts in the room. It wasn’t just lobbyists.”

He says the provisions of the bill were not simply products of haggling but took into account environmental realities, such as the location of water sources. The fees in the bill were not negotiated at all, he says, but were instead set by asking the two regulatory agencies what they would need to oversee fracking. “I think if you had seen the legislation that the industry introduced, you would not characterize this as an industry bill,” says Denzler, who is also vice president of government affairs for the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association. “I don’t think that you would have had the sign-off from the governor, from the attorney general and the environmental groups that you did if this was an industry bill.”

Denzler notes that all development comes with a component of risk, but he says the legislation incorporates what has been learned about best practices in the industry. “We’ve looked at things that have happened in other states; what’s worked and what’s not worked.”

Clare Butterfield is a Unitarian Universalist minister and the executive director of Faith In Place. She reflected on the emotional battle, which at times has involved some mudslinging among groups who all say their primary goal is protecting the planet, in a blog post she wrote on the group’s website. “There is something about that process that feels morally ambiguous, the way compromise on important issues always feels morally ambiguous. You always have to wonder what you’re getting, if it’s enough. We are consoled in our relative inexperience by the much greater experience of our friends in negotiation who think what we’ve gotten is good — and better than has been gotten in any other state.”

She goes on to write: “So by taking a position of supporting a substantive restriction, which is agreed and therefore legislatively achievable, versus an outright ban, we have incurred the deep disappointment of some people we care deeply about. That is an awful situation in which to find ourselves. It is part of the price of getting something, and we didn’t quite realize that we were signing up for that, as well as for the other compromises we’ve made, until the emails [objecting to our decision] started arriving.”

Many of the advocates who made the trip to Springfield this year will be the same people who watch nervously as fracking wells begin operation in southern Illinois. And many say no manner of regulation will make them feel safe in knowing that their health and water will be protected. “The last time I came home from Springfield, my 7-year-old daughter came up to me and she said, ‘Mommy what are we going to do [when] we don’t have water? And if our well goes bad, how are we going to shower? How are we going to water our garden? How am I going to take a bath? What are we going to do, Mom?’” southern Illinois activist Tabitha Tripp says. “What am I supposed to say to her? Because that’s not a question I can answer. What will you tell my daughter and my son? ... We can’t drink money, and we can’t drink fossil fuels.”

Now that the fight over SB 1715 is over, Jack Porter, a former lawyer and Presbyterian minister who serves on the Illinois People’s Action board, says he thinks that groups who found themselves on different sides of the issue can still come together to help Illinois residents who may be affected by fracking. “If we are working on a particular problem that arises within this context, I’m sure we’ll be happy to work with anybody who shares our concern.” He says some from southern Illinois might feel more “disillusioned” or “bitter” over the political disagreement. But he says once fracking starts, they will likely need all the allies they can get. “I would suspect that most people would end up being pretty pragmatic.”

Illinois Issues, July/August 2013

 

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Three protesters sitting in front of governor's office
Protesters seeking a moratorium on fracking in Illinois stationed themselves outside the governor’s office.

crowd with anti-fracking signs
People against Senate Bill 1715 turned out at the Illinois Capitol to rally.