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Fracking Bill Triggers Rift Among Illinois Green Groups

Grassroots activists say they feel 'betrayed' by mainstream environmental organizations that helped write the state's new fracking regulations.

Jun 17, 2013
Tabitha Tripp of SAFE

Mainstream environmental groups in Illinois celebrated last month after state lawmakers approved a bill regulating fracking—a bill the environmental groups themselves had helped write in a unique collaboration with the fossil fuel industry and politicians.

Local grassroots groups, however, want fracking in Illinois stopped altogether, not simply regulated with legislation. They are not only protesting the law, but also their one-time allies.

"A lot of people feel betrayed and sold out," said Sandra Steingraber, an environmental health expert and Illinois native who has joined the anti-fracking grassroots campaign. For years, the grassroots groups had worked with mainstream organizations to persuade legislators to institute a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, she said. "Without consulting the grassroots, these compromise-oriented [mainstream] groups seemingly dropped the joint fight for a moratorium in favor of regulation written behind closed doors ... They were negotiating on our behalf without our permission."

The Illinois law requires drillers to publicly disclose the chemicals they use and test local water before, during and after they frack. It also enables citizens to participate in the permitting process. It is seen by many as offering the nation's strongest fracking protections and as a model of cooperation that other states could follow to create their own hydraulic fracturing laws. 

Although Illinois sits atop the one of the nation's largest shale gas reserves, it has no rules regarding fracking. Until the regulatory legislation passed in May, anyone could file an application with the Department of Natural Resources, pay $100, and be awarded a permit to frack within 48 hours.

"Our investigations have found that fracking is already happening in the state," said Ann Alexander, a Chicago-based senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council who helped write the bill. "We thought it was better to put controls in place than let it continue unchecked."

Fracking involves forcing millions of gallons of fluid—typically a mixture of water, sand and assorted chemicals—underground at high pressure to create small fissures in the underlying rock so trapped gas and oil can escape easily. While scientific studies have yet to assess many possible health and environmental impacts of the process, fracking has been linked to groundwater contamination, earthquakes, air pollution and methane leakage, which exacerbates global warming. The Illinois grassroots groups argue that until all the effects are understood, drillers should be prohibited from fracking because it could unknowingly put communities at risk.

Underneath a large portion of Illinois lies the New Albany formation, which contains an estimated 86 to 160 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas—enough to power nearly half of American households for 15 years, according to data from the American Gas Association. The state is also desperate for jobs. As of April, 9.3 percent of Illinoisans were unemployed, compared to 7.5 percent nationally.

Jen Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, says a fracking boom in the state is not only inevitable, but also imminent.

"The criticism being tossed at us by our grassroots friends stings," said Walling, whose group supported the bill. "We know these regulations aren't the end-all be-all. But in our opinion, this bill is better than nothing, which is what the state previously had. That was a dangerous place to be in with so many companies looking to drill here."

However, even a few mainstream groups are divided about the new law, including some that publicly supported the bill.

Jim Bensman, a member of the conservation committee for the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club, said the committee was given less than 24 hours notice that it would have to vote on whether to support the measure, because a press conference had already been scheduled to announce the group's position.

"It was a horrible mistake [to support the bill]," Bensman told InsideClimate News. "It is inexcusable to make a decision like that, rushed and uninformed. Some of us fought to have it reversed, but were just ignored." 

The divisions in Illinois reflect a larger debate taking place among environmentalists across the country. Should they work to get better regulations for hydraulic fracturing? Or should they devote all their effort to the more politically unpopular bans or moratoriums? As they determine which strategy they should take, industry and politicians on both sides of the aisle are pushing for ramped up natural gas production and export.

Years in the Making

For years, mainstream and grassroots environmental groups in Illinois worked side by side to stave off development of the fracking industry. Together, they helped defeat an industry-written regulatory bill that was making its way through the state legislature in 2012 and in its stead helped pushed forward legislation for a two-year moratorium. But the effort failed because lawmakers ran out of time to vote on it.

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