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Can One Southern Illinois County Ban Fracking?

Kris Pirmann and a handful of other Johnson County residents stand outside the county commission office in Vienna, Ill., a town of about 1,400 people tucked into southern Illinois’ rolling hills near the Shawnee National Forest. 

“Southern Illinois. I grew up as a Navy brat. I moved all over the place, and southern Illinois was always the place where family was that we could come back to as home,” Pirmann said.

Pirmann runs a small vegetable farm, and he loves the rural quietude that he finds in this remote pocket of Illinois.

“It’s absolutely beautiful,” he said. “I’ve lived near near Glacier Park, Montana and I’d take Johnson County over that any day."

Pirmann fears that could all change if fracking comes to town. He and other Johnson County residents turned in over 1,000 signatures on December 12 to the county clerk to put a non-binding resolution on the ballot next year that would ban hydraulic fracturing, that controversial oil and gas drilling technique that injects water, sand and chemicals into horizontal wells to crack shale and allows oil and natural gas to escape.

Southeastern Illinois has long been dotted by oil wells. Now, hydraulic fracturing could revitalize the Illinois oil industry. That makes people nervous in a place like Johnson County, where there’s been very little oil drilling in the past. People here are uncertain about water contamination and fracking-induced earthquakes. Some don’t want anything to do with fracking at all.

Natalie Long, a community rights organizer with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, said the non-binding resolution will do two things.

“The first, being able to show that Johnson County citizens want to have control over their future as a community and secondly want to empower their Johnson County commissioners to act on this issue and to take a stand, to protect the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of Johnson County,” Long said.

One of those commissioners is Ernie Henshaw. He said the non-binding resolution will give the county a good barometer to provide direction for local laws.

“If it comes back [with] overwhelmingly support for this, we’ve got to take a hard look at what that group wants. We’ve got to take a hard look at that,” Henshaw said. “If it’s overwhelming the other way, if the overwhelming part of this county thinks that fracking is a viable thing that we need to pursue, we’ve got to look at that.”

Unemployment in Johnson County is above 10 percent, so Henshaw sees the promise for good jobs moving into the area. But he’s also worried about potential environmental problems and the impact fracking could have on the burgeoning tourism and wine industries.

Legally, Johnson County has a couple of significant hurdles. Under the Illinois constitution, only the state government or jurisdictions with home rule can regulate for protection of public health and welfare, according to Southern Illinois University environmental law professor Trish McCubbin.

“Johnson County, where this proposed ban is going in, is not a home rule jurisdiction,” McCubbin said.

McCubbin said it’s possible for the state legislature to give a county the power to ban fracking, either expressly or if it’s implied by something the legislature has already done.  She said the first place to look for that type of power would be the state’s recently-passed Hydraulic Fracturing Regulatory Act.

“It does not grant the power to ban to any counties. In fact, it was probably intending to do the opposite,” McCubbin said. “The most that it does is give counties the power to request a hearing on a specific permit and to file written objections but that’s mostly process. That’s not very much.”

A rural New Mexico county was greeted with an industry lawsuit when it banned fracking this spring. If Johnson County passes a fracking ban, McCubbin expects a similar lawsuit here.