Commissioners approve moratorium on fracking

Estimated read time 6 min read

After many months of debate and a collection of concerns voiced at a recent town hall held in Goreville, the Johnson County Board of Commissioners voted 2-1 on Monday in support of a one-year moratorium on hydraulic fracturing.

While the approval is largely symbolic, Johnson County’s measure aligns it with its neighbors in Hardin, Jackson, Pope and Union who also support a statewide moratorium.

“I feel we’ve done the right thing,” Board Chairman Jeff Mears said following the meeting. Mears and Commissioner Ernie Henshaw voted in favor of the moratorium while Vice Chairman Phil Stewart opposed it.

Mears said the board’s action Monday would allow Johnson County time to put its interests in order to protect its infrastructure and its residents.

“Because I think it’s coming,” Mears said. “Ultimately Illinois will say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ not us, so we just have to be prepared as much as we can to protect our county.”

The process of hydraulic fracturing requires the transport of millions of gallons of water, which the commissioners said created concerns on their part to protect roads and water supply. In Springfield, three separate bills address the process of hydraulic fracturing with two proposing moratoriums and one proposing “stringent” regulations. The Illinois House Executive Committee was expected to consider SB1715 on Tuesday, which proponents say contain the toughest regulations on high-volume horizontal fracturing in the country while House and Senate bills seeking a two-year moratorium have stalled.

“I made it clear today, I’m not anti-fracking, but yet I do have some concerns and I think that a one-year moratorium is a substantial amount of time for us to look at where we’re going and hopefully we’ll get everything worked out,” Henshaw said.

Henshaw said the county would start looking at what legal tools are available to ensure the protection of roads and water supplies, adding that the county also needs to look at the positive economic opportunities, such as employment, as well.

Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing our Environment representative Rachel Cook, an assistant professor of soil fertility at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, said she was optimistic all along with what the commissioners might do in supporting the moratorium. Cook sat on the panel of moratorium supporters at the town hall held in Goreville, May 8 helping to provide answers to several questions from the audience.

“We are very pleased to see the commissioners decided to take a cautious approach and give us some time to take the right steps in the future,” Cook said Monday after the meeting. She said SAFE would work over the next year to continue to try and protect all of the areas that are potentially subject to hydraulic fracturing.

“With a one-year moratorium, that gives us time to continue to collect data, look at the science and move forward from there,” Cook said.

Throughout the commissioners’ meeting Monday the debate largely stood on what was best for the residents of Johnson County and how to address the concerns of those who support hydraulic fracturing as well as those who do not.

Johnson County economic development director Ron Duncan spoke Monday and provided data from the town hall saying 78.4 percent of respondents said the town hall meeting left them better informed with a portion of those respondents saying they support the idea of hydraulic fracturing but that they still had more to learn about it. Duncan was recently quoted in an Associated Press article that was picked up nationally and led to an increase in media focusing on Johnson County’s town hall.

“This really is a double-edged sword,” Duncan said in the AP article about hydraulic fracturing coming to Johnson County. “This town could use an economic infusion, but it’s also where people love the rural life, the natural beauty and knowing their neighbors.”

Johnson County resident Michael Moore, who lives near Simpson Blacktop, ask oil and gas industry representatives about the type of jobs hydraulic fracturing will bring to the area and what percent of the jobs will be available to residents of the county while town hall moderator Ron Duncan, Johnson County economic development director, keeps watch on the questioner’s time. The Johnson County Board of Commissioners conducted a town hall meeting May 8 in Goreville to discuss hydraulic fracturing and help them decide whether or not to support a statewide moratorium on the practice.

While the oil and gas industry says the process of hydraulic fracturing is safe and has been in practice for years, environmental groups argue that the newer method of horizontal drilling leads to environmental degradations beyond repair. Hydraulic fracturing combined with horizontal drilling allows the industry access to previously “out-of-reach deposits and has opened large areas of the county for exploration,” according to the AP.

The commissioners conceded that information is easily accessible to favor either side of the argument and only adds to the difficulties of the debate.

“Whatever I want to hear, or whatever I want to read, I can find,” Henshaw said at the meeting Monday before the commissioners passed the resolution. “If I want to find out that fracking is a great thing, I can find page after page of information to lead me to believe that and if I feel like it’s not, or it’s unsafe, I can find page after page to make me believe that.”

Henshaw said it came down to making a decision for what is best for the citizens of Johnson County and his choice to support a moratorium was largely based on the community coming together at the public forum to voice their concerns.

“I think we’ve got people in this county that are unsure about the process; likes the idea of potentially people going to work; really scared of the idea potentially what we’re going to do from an environmental standpoint,” Henshaw said, adding, “… At this time, I would support a moratorium for one year, and be comfortable with that.”

After the meeting Henshaw said, “We can all be happy with this [decision today] and move forward. We’ve got some other things we need to be working on too. So we need to move forward from this and tackle some other issues.”

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