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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Primary referendum on fracking puts southern Illinois county in national spotlight

VIENNA — The divisive national debate over fracking has found its way into homes, cafes and even Sunday school classes in Johnson County.

Ernie Henshaw of Johnson County Citizens Opposed to Fracking Proposition (also a county commissioner) and Annette McMichael of Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment talk about both sides of the fracking debate. Johnson County in southern Illinois has become the focal point of a national debate on fracking, which involves using a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals to crack and hold open thick rock formations, releasing trapped oil and gas. Johnson County voters this week will vote on an advisory referendum that aims to ban fracking in the county.

  • Annette McMichael and her group - Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment, or SAFE, have been at the forefront of the fight to ban hydraulic fracturing in Johnson County. The group has brought an advisory referendum to the ballot known as "Community Bill of Rights."
    Photos by Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register |
    Annette McMichael and her group - Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment, or SAFE, have been at the forefront of the fight to ban hydraulic fracturing in Johnson County. The group has brought an advisory referendum to the ballot known as "Community Bill of Rights."

    Annette McMichael and her group - Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment, or SAFE, have been at the forefront of the fight to ban hydraulic fracturing in Johnson County. The group has brought an advisory referendum to the ballot known as "Community Bill of Rights."Much of the landscape of rural Johnson County is scenic rolling hills and timber. Small pockets of bottomland allow for row crops, but the major employer in the county are two prisons.Mark Elliot opens gates into fields on his farm to put out hay for his beef cattle. Elliot doesn’t believe the land, which has been in his family for more than 100 years, is a viable source for hydraulic fracturing. Elliot is a member of a group opposed to an advisory referendum on the Johnson County ballot to ban corporate hydraulic fracturing.Johnson County Commissioner Ernie Henshaw, right, is part of a group opposed to the advisory referendum. The group is not for or against fracking, but they argue the “Community Bill of Rights” can’t ban the procedure because of state laws already in place. They also worry it could cause lawsuits that the county could not afford.

  • by Tim Landis, Business Editor, The State Journal-Register, March 15, 2014

    VIENNA, IL — Hydraulic fracturing joins the usual local, state and federal offices on the Johnson County primary election ballot Tuesday.
    In the weeks leading up to the election, the divisive national debate has found its way into homes, cafes and even Sunday school classes in the rural southern Illinois county better known for its scenic, rolling hills and two state prisons that are the largest local employers.
    Johnson County voters will be asked by advisory referendum on Tuesday whether the county should adopt a “Community Bill of Rights” intended to ultimately ban fracking, as the practice also is known. Only one other county in the country, in New Mexico, has banned the practice, according to referendum organizers.
    Proponents argue the referendum is a matter of local control and protecting the environment. Approval, opponents say, would not ban fracking to begin with but would result in costly lawsuits.
    The fight has drawn national media attention. Both sides claim the other has used scare tactics and outside interest groups to sway the vote, using terms such as “extremists” and “radical” to describe each other. Both claim the mantle of grassroots organization.
    “It's become quite the battle,” said County Commissioner Ernie Henshaw, a lifelong resident and an opponent of the proposition. He's among the organizers of the group, Johnson County Citizens Opposed to Fracking Proposition.
    “If you'd told me a year ago we'd be here,” Henshaw said, “I wouldn't have believed you. But here we are.”
    The ballot initiative
    “If you want to blame someone, blame me.”
    Local resident Annette McMichael offered the self-assessment in response to claims her group — Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment (SAFE) — has served as a front for outside environmental organizations to get the fracking question on the ballot.
    She pointed out the three-member county board suggested the non-binding advisory referendum as an alternative to SAFE's call for a board-approved ban. Only about 380 petition signatures were needed to get the question on the March 18 primary ballot.
    SAFE collected approximately 1,000. There are an estimated 8,400 registered voters in Johnson County.
    “We sat around the kitchen table,” McMichael said of SAFE's formation. “We're all volunteers.”
    McMichael estimated SAFE has 90 members in Johnson, Hardin, Pope, Jackson and Union counties.
    She and husband, Jim, moved in December from the Champaign area to their two-story home and 10 acres in the northeast corner of Johnson County. But Annette McMichael said the couple has owned the land at the edge of the Shawnee National Forest for more than a decade and have been frequent visitors to the area. Her entry into the fracking debate, McMichael said, began with concerns about the water supply during the drought of 2012.
  • “I had no idea we were sitting on a fracking zone,” said McMichael, who considers the practice a dire threat to air, water and health.

    The more she learned, McMichael said, the more she became convinced only an out-right ban would suffice. But she said SAFE members have no illusions should voters approve the advisory referendum on Tuesday given the opposition of local and state elected officials.

    “They're never going to approve a Community Bill of Rights, never in a million years,” McMichael said. “We want people to send a message to county commissioners that we want to ban fracking. We're making a statement. That was always our intent.

    “This is only one step,” McMichael said. “We'll never, never, never give up.”

    Mora County

    Mora County, N.M., finds itself in a legal fight less than a year after becoming the first county in the nation to ban fracking.

    The Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico and three county landowners filed suit in federal court in November claiming the ban violates state laws and is unconstitutional. The ban was approved in April 2013 with support from cattle farmers who viewed fracking as a threat to land and water.

    Legal troubles in a county that can little afford the cost are their chief fear, say opponents of a Community Bill of Rights in Johnson County.

    “They all follow the same pattern. It's a kind of boilerplate language. This would wind up right back in the laps of the county board,” said Zach Garrett of Shawnee Professional Services in Vienna. His father, firm CEO Mitch Garrett, is among the organizers of referendum opponents.
    The “rights,” said Zach Garrett, could be extended to all manner of environmental issues, including farming, genetically modified crops and water use. Expensive legal challenges would be certain to follow, according to opponents.

    Not so, said Natalie Long, southern Illinois coordinator for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. The national, not-for-profit law firm has helped organize anti-fracking educational campaigns and referendums across the country.

    Long said, of the 160 local governments to approve community rights statutes, only Mora County, N.M., has faced a court challenge.

    “Whatever comes out of the vote, the ultimate vote falls to the Johnson County commissioners,” said Long, who is an attorney. “This is about fracking and nothing else. It would be the commissioners who would draft a local rights bill.”

    Long said her group would recommend provisions, but so could local residents.

    Local control?

    Proposition supporters say Henshaw and other opponents have tried to change the subject from fracking as a result of strong local support for a ban. Henshaw insisted the group has not taken a stand on fracking, but that state regulation makes it a moot point.

    Even as Johnson County voters prepare to cast ballots, regulators at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources continue to work on final regulations that would implement legislation signed by Gov. Pat Quinn in June 2013.

    Draft rules released last fall came in for a blizzard of criticism from environmental groups, which claimed the agency had sold out to the oil industry.

    The regulatory fight in Springfield has only added to the uncertainty in Johnson County, Henshaw said, adding that the county state's attorney has provided an informal opinion that commissioners have no legal authority to ban fracking.

    A spokeswoman for Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said that office has not yet addressed the issue of local versus state control.

    “Initially, I wasn't overly concerned, I'll put it that way,” Henshaw said. “Had I known at the beginning what I know now, I could have become concerned a lot sooner.”

    Local control, Long said, is at the core of the fracking issue and the Johnson County referendum. Whatever the outcome Tuesday, she said, the issue will not fade. Legal challenges could be necessary to settle the question.

    “It's really at the heart of what we're doing,” Long said. “If the state passes a law that violates the rights of its citizens, how do you address that?”

    Contact Tim Landis: 788-1536,,

    Hydraulic fracturing

    The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates domestic natural gas production will increase from 23 million cubic feet in 2011 to 33.1 trillion cubic feet by 2040, a 44 percent increase. Nearly all of the projected increase is expected to come from shale-gas released through hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracturing or fracking.

    Shale formations underlie most of Illinois, including central Illinois.

    Here is how the process works:

    * Fracturing relies on injection of more than 1 million gallons of water, sand and chemicals down and across horizontal wells at depths up to 10,000 feet.
    * The pressurized mix causes the shale to crack.
    * Sand particles hold the fissures open, allowing natural gas to flow up the well.
    Source: “Annual Energy Outlook 2013” of the U.S. Energy Information Administration

    Ballot proposition
    Voters in Johnson County, in southern Illinois, will be asked to decide the following proposition on the Tuesday primary election ballot.

    “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, safety and a clean environment?”

    The referendum is advisory. The county board of commissioners would have to approve a ban.

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