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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
(Page 2 of 3 )
Tabitha Tripp of SAFE

During the summer of 2012, the two sides worked together again on a new moratorium bill, attracting the support of nearly 40 lawmakers and the state’s Attorney General, Lisa Madigan. But in September, the Illinois Oil and Gas Association introduced another draft regulatory bill that caught the attention of several legislators, including Speaker of the House Michael Madigan (Lisa Madigan's father), Sen. Michael Frerichs, and Rep. John Bradley. As interest in the regulatory bill grew, the moratorium lost traction, said Alexander of the NRDC.

"We were left with the dilemma to either start from scratch with another moratorium or become involved with a regulatory bill, which just kept gaining more and more support from politicians," Alexander said.

Discussions over the new regulatory bill quickly became crowded and heated as environmentalists and fossil fuel companies fought to be heard. Rep. Bradley finally asked each side to choose four delegates to sit at the negotiating table. 

The state's major green groups held a conference call and voted that the four seats be given to: the NRDC; the Environmental Law and Policy Center, a Midwest-based legal advocacy group; Environment Illinois, the local chapter of the national advocacy group Environment America; and Faith in Place, a religious-based organization that partners with more than 900 congregations in Illinois to fight environmental issues.

Some grassroots groups were included in the call, but Annette McMichael, a spokeswoman for Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment (SAFE), said that they never got an opportunity to weigh in on who should represent them or whether environmentalists should help write the bill at all. 

Dawn Dannenbring, lead organizer for the grassroots group Illinois People's Action, also felt excluded. "We asked to be involved, but were ignored," she said. "It meant that the people most likely to be affected by fracking didn't get a voice."

A Divided Movement

Over the next five months, representatives from the four peer-elected green organizations gathered with industry groups and politicians in Springfield, the state capital, to hash out the details of the bill. The environmentalists were joined by rotating delegates from the Texas-based oil and gas exploration company PXP, the Farm Bureau, the Illinois Petroleum Institute, the Illinois Manufacturers' Association, the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, and the Illinois Oil and Gas Association, among others. Representatives of the state's Department of Public Health, Attorney General's office, Governor's office, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Natural Resources and Geological Survey also attended meetings.

The final bill, SB1715, requires drilling companies to fill out detailed permit applications and disclose what chemicals they plan to pump underground before they begin operating. It also limits industry's ability to claim that their chemicals are trade secrets, the legal argument often used to keep their contents hidden from the public. Drillers will have to pay a third party to test nearby water sources before, during and after fracking. All wastewater must be stored in closed tanks, and strict well construction standards were established. The bill also allows citizens to challenge permits and violations.

Outraged by both the mainstream organizations' participation in the process and the bill itself, grassroots groups like SAFE and Illinois People's Action started protesting the legislation. They attended town hall meetings and went door to door. They orchestrated a week of sit ins in Governor Pat Quinn's office in which five activists were arrested. Steingraber testified against the bill on the Senate floor.

When the state Senate approved the measure on May 31 with a resounding 52-3 vote, grassroots members cried out in protest from the room’s balconies.

"This bill is a betrayal of science. This bill is a betrayal of democracy. This bill is a betrayal of the children of Illinois," Steingraber shouted before she was removed by security.  

One of grassroots activists' major complaints is that there wasn’t a public comment period or public hearings for the new regulations. 

"When we visit town hall meetings to discuss fracking, 90 percent of the people in attendance are against it," said McMichael. "But the bill was created behind closed doors, inaccessible to the public and experts" who could have shed light on the environmental and health consequences. 

Grassroots groups also claim the regulations are inadequate and will simply serve as a green light for businesses to start drilling in the state. "We think many companies have held off until now because they were waiting to hear what regulations they would have to follow before investing," said Dannenbring.

She also said that legislation doesn't always equal protection, pointing to a recent report from Pennsylvania that found thousands of violations of the state's hydraulic fracturing regulations since 2008.

But the mainstream groups that supported the bill don't see it that way. The regulations aren't static, explained Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council. When new information becomes available, the groups will fight to update them. 

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