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Fracking Debate Ignites In Johnson County, Ill.

The debate over hydraulic fracturing is heating up again in rural Johnson County, Illinois.

A group of residents there - including a member of the county commission - has come out against a resolution that will appear on the ballot next month to ban fracking on their turf. 

Supporters say the non-binding resolution will help gauge whether the county should move forward with a so-called “Community Bill of Rights” that would include the frack ban.

But to Johnson County Commissioner Ernie Henshaw, the question of whether or not to ban fracking is not that simple.

“I don’t think it would be any different than Johnson County passing a 100 mile per hour speed limit,” Henshaw said. “We don’t have any legal right to do that, and I don’t think we have any legal right to ban fracking. And that concerns me that we could actually jeopardize our financial future by doing that.”

Henshaw is leading the effort to fight the fracking ban. At a press conference on Wednesday at the Vienna library, Henshaw and a handful of business owners explained why they think the ban, and more specifically the Community Bill of Rights, is a bad idea.

High volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing is the controversial oil and gas extraction technique that has led to a boom in fossil fuel industry in the United States. In Illinois, environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, along with the oil and gas industry, helped write a law last year that regulates the practice. But some locals here do not want any fracking at all - they fear it will contaminate the water supply, tear up roads and completely change their rural way of life.

For Henshaw, a lot of it comes down to an unlikely place -- far away Mora County, New Mexico. That’s the first and only county in the country to ban fracking. It is a world away from Johnson County, but Henshaw says what happens in that poor, rural county matters here.

“They are presently involved in a lawsuit they are predicting will last three to five years. They’ve had to hire three attorneys,” Henshaw said. “You know, in my mind, if you enter into a lawsuit, you immediately start losing because you’re spending money to fight that. And a fight, honestly, I don’t think we can win.”

The fracking opponents are hoping to wrap the frack ban into a Community Bill of Rights and they are getting help from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, or CELDF. It’s the same environmental organization that helped ban fracking in Mora County.

Henshaw said if CELDF’s work in other communities is any indication, the Community Bill of Rights might also include bans on chemical pesticides or genetically modified seeds and other issues that simply will not fly in Johnson County. He is afraid this whole issue is being instigated by out-of-state interests.

Fracking ban supporter Belinda Halvorson is one of the authors of the Community Bill of Rights and said any criticism is premature.

“They haven’t even seen it. They’re going by others. They’re not all set in one wording. It is what the people of a certain county wants,” Halvorson said.

To Natalie Long, Henshaw’s comments are a shame.

“The commissioners, as we can see, are not looking toward the good of their people. Instead they’re looking at what makes their job easiest,” Long said.

Long works for CELDF. Local fracking opponents invited her to Johnson County and she’s been working on the Community Bill of Rights in a guidance capacity. She called each Community Bill of Rights a community-tailored effort.

“There are similarities that may carry across in terms of rights because we all have the right to clean air. We all have the right to clean water. We all have the right as a community to local self-governance,” Long said. “But each community sits around a table and actually decides, what are the particular issues that they want to take on in their communities. Saying that what happened in Mora County is going to happen in Johnson County just isn’t true.”

All this might seem like a lot for a non-binding resolution because the “non-binding” part means exactly that --- the county commission does not have to approve a fracking ban if the YES vote wins the election. Still, fracking opponent Annette McMichael from Southern Illinoisans Against Fracking Our Environment says they will continue their efforts.

“It took us practically no time at all to get 1,000 signatures to get this ballot initiative on the March 18 ballot in the first place. People are concerned,” McMichael said.

Meanwhile, Ernie Henshaw says he is a Johnson County taxpayer and citizen as well as a commissioner, and he does not want to see his tax dollars wasted on a lawsuit the county could eventually lose.

No county funds are being used to fund Henshaw’s campaign against the resolution, and he says the oil and gas industry has not contributed a dime.

Jacob spearheads KRCU’s local news effort. His reporting has been heard on NPR’ Morning Edition and All Things Considered, PRI’s The World, and Harvest Public Media. In addition to reporting, Jacob directs KRCU’s team of student reporters and producers.