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Illinois county to vote over 'fracking' prospects

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 14, 2014 at 5:21 pm •  Published: March 14, 2014

VIENNA, Ill. (AP) — Officials in southern Illinois' Johnson County will soon learn where their constituents stand on fracking, as voters will signal whether the county should resist efforts to use the contentious extraction method to get at any oil or gas that may be trapped deep underground.

The question of whether to oppose possible efforts to bring hydraulic fracturing to the county has hijacked the County Commission meetings for months and pitted neighbors against one another. And whatever voters decide Tuesday, the issue isn't likely to go away anytime soon.

"It's been a long time since we've had so much controversy about an outside issue — so much that at every county board meeting, this has come up since last summer. Every meeting," groans Robin Harper-Whitehead, the county's longtime clerk.

"We've gotten to the point where neighbors are mad at neighbors over this issue, and it's sad," added Ernie Henshaw, a second-term commissioner.

Voters will be asked whether the commission should oppose any effort to begin fracking in Johnson County. The process involves blasting rock formations deep underground with water, sand and chemicals to release trapped oil and gas.

Fracking proponents say it could provide the economic jolt needed to revive Johnson County's struggling economy, pointing to the great boon it has been in some places, most notably North Dakota. Opponents worry about the possible risks it poses to public health and the environment, including the groundwater.

The outcome of Tuesday's referendum isn't binding. It essentially will serve as an advisory to the county commission about local sentiment regarding fracking. The Legislature passed a law last year allowing fracking in the state, and the state Department of Natural Resources is in the process of drafting rules to govern the practice.

The DNR recently got an earful during five public hearings intended to help it identify ways of improving the fracking rules, though none of the suggestions will undo the legislation despite opponents' pleas for a fracking ban.

That hasn't stopped anti-fracking forces from trying to assert local control, zeroing in on Johnson County despite questions about whether it even has sizeable underground oil reserves. The industry is eyeing the New Albany Shale formation in southern Illinois, where they hope that significant oil deposits lie 5,000 feet or more below the surface.

Henshaw, the commissioner, said that because Johnson County is on that formation's edge, he doesn't think it's likely that it is sitting on oil riches. He cast the referendum as the work of meddling outside environmentalists looking to make a stand in Illinois, and said that moving to restrict fracking could put the county in the crosshairs of costly lawsuits by the energy industry and landowners willing to lease their acreage for drilling.

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