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.

Tabitha Tripp of SAFE
Tabitha Tripp of the grassroots group SAFE speaking at an anti-fracking rally in the Illinois State Capitol building. Credit: SAFE

Share this article

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.

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. 

Jenny Cassel, a staff attorney and policy expert with the Environmental Law and Policy Center who helped write the bill, disputes the grassroots groups’ assertion that by not having a public comment period outside experts weren’t able to chime in. “Every call, every meeting, there were health and environmental experts who participated,” Cassel said. 

Moving Forward 

Alexander and Walling said mainstream groups intend to keep pushing for a moratorium and need the grassroots groups to achieve that goal.

“Even though there has been this heat, we really want to work with them in the future on fracking, and other issues,” said Walling. “They are so valuable in inspiring action among communities. We need their help.” 

Several grassroots activists told InsideClimate News they would consider working with the mainstream green groups again, albeit cautiously. 

“In activism, there are no permanent enemies and no permanent friends,” said Dannenbring. “If we saw a genuine effort from them to work on a moratorium, we wouldn’t turn away from that. But bridges were burned. We would be cautious.”