ST. LOUIS (AP) — Voters in a struggling southern Illinois county have rejected a ballot referendum meant to pressure the county's governing board to restrict a debated oil drilling practice, leaving open the question of whether the measure failed because of confusion or the prevailing need for jobs.
With nearly half of the county's registered voters casting ballots during spring primaries traditionally marked by low turnout, the measure involving hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, failed Tuesday by a 600-vote margin, Johnson County Clerk Robin Harper-Whitehead said.
More than 2,220 people voted against the provision, while about 1,600 backed it, Harper-Whitehead said. There are 14 outstanding absentee ballots.
The nonbinding referendum was meant to advise the county's commission whether it should resist the drilling practice that involves blasting rock formations deep underground with water, sand and chemicals to release trapped oil and gas. While there's question about whether Johnson County even has sizeable underground oil reserves, critics of Tuesday's ballot measure had claimed environmentalists were hoping to make the county an anti-fracking foothold from which they could extend their campaign to other counties.
Harper-Whitehead and others in the county had welcomed an Election Day resolution of the issue, which for months had divided residents and hijacked the County Commission meetings. Fracking opponents worried about the possible risks it poses to public health and the environment, including the groundwater. But Monty Sanders — owner of 50 acres and operator of a small-engine repair shop — and others opposed to fracking restrictions argued that the drilling could provide an economic jolt to the county's economy, pointing to the boon it has been in some places.
"There isn't much down here, and something like that could bring in thousands of jobs. It's a big deal. We need jobs, and we need revenue," Sanders, 59, said Wednesday, a day after voting against the referendum. "I'm a landowner, and if I wanted fracking on my property. it's my business. By God if I could, I would."
The state's Legislature passed a law last year allowing fracking in Illinois, and the state Department of Natural Resources is in the process of drafting rules to govern it.