Frack-Free Leaders in Illinois, Hedging Their Bets, Shelve Calls for Ban for Now

Grassroots activists joined mainstream environmental organizations to help force the state to write tougher fracking rules; some aren't pleased about it.

Anti-fracking protest at the headquarters of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources in March 2014. "With companies already beginning to drill, the only leverage we have is through the regulatory process," says an anti-fracking activist. Credit: jpmatth

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Grassroots groups fighting hydraulic fracturing in Illinois have put aside their push for a moratorium or a ban in recent months in favor of seeking stronger industry regulations.

“Basically, we’re hedging our bets,” said Annette McMichael, spokeswoman for Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment (SAFE). “We are firmly against fracking, and yet we are willing to work within the legislative confines.”

SAFE and other local organizations joined with national environmental groups to force the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to write tougher rules under 2013 legislation regulating fracking, a technique used to extract natural gas and oil from shale. The department issued its new regulations Friday. And yet, the decision to shelve demands for a moratorium or a ban has upset fellow grassroots activists who maintain that any fracking—even when highly regulated—is unsafe.

The Illinois environmental movement’s rift over strategy reflects the dilemma facing fracking opponents across the U.S. Should they pursue more easily achievable regulations, or harder-to-win moratoriums or bans? They are up against politicians and a fossil fuel industry that are pushing for ramped up natural gas production.

The technology involves forcing millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals underground to fracture shale so that gas or oil escapes. Opponents say fracking causes groundwater contamination, earthquakes, air pollution and leakage of methane, which exacerbates global warming.

Tabitha Tripp, an anti-fracking activist who used to sit on SAFE’s steering committee, said she felt “censored” by grassroots leaders whenever she tried to mention moratorium or ban in recent months. She says she left the panel so she could engage in direct action.

“You don’t want the movement to seem fractured, but you don’t want to compromise yourself or your community,” Tripp said. “Regulations aren’t going to fix this problem.”

In the first half of 2013, grassroots organizers blasted national environmental groups for making the strategic switch to focus on regulation. A collection of organizations including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Law and Policy Center worked with industry to write the state’s fracking legislation.

Bill Rau, a leader of Illinois People’s Action, one of the leading community groups fighting fracking, defends the grassroots’ decision to join national organizations in their call for regulation.

“There are some folks who are still insistent that we have to go for a ban right now,” Rau said. “That’s not dealing with reality. With companies already beginning to drill, the only leverage we have is through the regulatory process.”

The debate over hydraulic fracturing in Illinois has been fierce. The state sits atop the New Albany Formation, which holds 86 trillion to 160 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas—enough to power nearly 50 percent of American households for 15 years, according to data from the American Gas Association. The industry so far has been wary of spending millions of dollars to develop wells without a clear picture of how fracking will be regulated.

Environmentalists say they know that time is running out and they are eager to put rules in place before the price of natural gas skyrockets and companies rush to drill.

Organizers at SAFE and IPA said they decided in November 2013 to focus on regulation. The state Department of Natural Resources had submitted draft fracking rules required under the legislation that industry and green groups worked to write the previous spring. But the proposed regulations included almost none of the measures that environmentalists had fought for. The local grassroots groups said they realized they needed to join with the national organizations in pressing for tougher rules, or the fossil fuel industry might be free to frack with little oversight.

Members flooded public hearings, circulated petitions and helped write more than 30,000 comments opposing the proposed rules. They launched the Dirty Thirty campaign, demanding that the 30 weakest proposed regulations—that toxic fracking wastewater could be stored in open-air pits, for example—be made stricter.

Grassroots organizations said the rules issued last week are a significant improvement over those the natural resources department originally proposed, but still aren’t tough enough.

“We have what appears to be a few big wins,” said Rau of Illinois People’s Action. He cited a seven-day limit on open-pit storage, close monitoring of radioactivity, and a mechanism for residents to challenge how far a drill site is set back from homes. “But overall, we don’t see this providing protection for citizens,” Rau said. “It is shelter for corporations.”

Rau and McMichael said their groups still want a moratorium or a ban on fracking in Illinois—though both acknowledge they’ll need much more public support to sway state lawmakers. McMichael said she wasn’t sure how they would go about getting a ban if regulations are already in place.

Correction: The original version of this article stated that Environment Illinois worked with industry to write the state’s fracking legislation. Environment Illinois monitored the process, but said it did not actively participate in writing the regulations. InsideClimate News regrets the error.