A contentious non-binding referendum to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in Johnson County, Ill. failed at the ballot box Tuesday night. Fifty-eight percent voted NO to the proposition which would have asked the county board to pass an ordinance that would prohibit the controversial oil and gas extraction technique.
The coalition of referendum opponents included state politicians, business groups and labor unions. They argued the referendum would be wrapped in a so-called “community bill of rights” which would restrict business and hurt the economy of this in this scenic county in the rolling hills of the Shawnee National Forest with an unemployment rate of 10 percent.
Johnson County commissioner Ernie Henshaw was one of the leaders of the referendum opponents. He said a lot was at stake in the proposition.
“The people of Johnson County have spoken. From the beginning, our opposition said that they wanted the will of the people’s voice heard. Well, it’s been heard tonight,” Henshaw said. “From my standpoint, this issue is over and we are going to move forward.”
Henshaw said the ballot referendum distracted the county from other work like construction of new county offices and the establishment of realistic oversight of fracking operations.
The Illinois Chamber of Commerce donated $23,500 to the referendum opposition to buy advertisements, mailers and robocalls.
“In my mind, that ought to be a good indicator of what a group that promotes business felt about what this could do to business in Johnson County,” Henshaw said.
Opponents feared the “community bill of rights” would bring legal trouble and could include language to prohibit activities other than fracking. Henshaw and others, like Shawnee Professional Services owner Mitch Garrett, felt the ballot language was confusing. They criticized the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), a Pennsylvania-based environmental advocacy group, for meddling in Johnson County affairs.
“We wouldn’t be talking here today if the question had been posed, ‘Are you in favor of fracking, or not in favor of fracking?’ if it was that simple,” Garrett said.
The fracking campaign bruised egos and drove a rift in this rural county of about 12,000 people. The Goreville Gazette and The Vienna Times both refused to run advertisements in support of the fracking ban. That lead the editor of the Goreville paper to quit in protest.
CELDF community rights organizer Natalie Long believes this swayed the election’s outcome.
“You really have to wonder if this election reflects the will of the people, when one side actively silenced the voice of those who are working against fracking,” Long said.
Long said this issue is not over yet.
“The rights of the people are not something that can be voted away,” Long said. “The rights of the people do not end with one vote.”
Tony Gerard, from Vienna, Ill. said he and other fracking opponents are not ready to give up the fight.
“I have no financial incentive to stop fracking in Johnson County,” Gerard said. “I’m totally in it for the welfare of the county I love, my lifestyle and the people I love. We’re not about to give up. We’re going to keep on fighting this out-of-state industry that’s wrought so much devastation on other communities.”
The ballot proposal read:
"Shall the people's right to local self-government be asserted by Johnson County to ban corporate fracking as a violation of their rights to health, safety, and a clean environment?"