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Fracking opponents take their fight to Chicago

CHICAGO (MCT) — Hundreds of miles from the shale oil of southern Illinois, nearly 300 people jammed into a hearing room in Chicago this week in an attempt to turn the tide against horizontal hydraulic fracturing.

"This is where the majority of the people are. This is where the majority of the legislators are. There is a lot of political weight in this area," said Tabitha Tripp, who drove six hours from southern Illinois to speak for two minutes at a pre-hearing news conference.

Though the law regulating fracking passed months ago, opponents hope to pressure the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules to strengthen proposed regulations that they believe significantly undercut the law or to reject the rules altogether, in effect, forcing a moratorium on fracking.

On Nov. 15, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources posted its proposed fracking rules, the beginning of a public comment period of more than 45 days. The agency must respond to every comment, hold hearings, hash out new draft regulations and send them to the committee, which has the final say over wording of rules. None of the members of that committee lives in the southern part of the state, where fracking is expected.

Less than two weeks after the proposed rules were posted, downstate anti-fracking groups mobilized so many people from the Chicago area that some had to stand outside. Many who attended the hearing at the University of Illinois at Chicago admitted never having traveled to the areas where fracking would occur but carried banners and hissed at lawmakers who passed the fracking law. Most were affiliated with large activist organizations like the Sierra Club and National People's Action.

Tom Wolf, executive director of the Energy Council at the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, part of a broad coalition that supports fracking for the jobs and economic benefits it would bring, said his group doesn't plan to pack hearings with union members or other vocal supporters.

"We are focusing on the draft rules, not the politics," Wolf said. "We're no longer debating whether or not hydraulic fracturing comes to Illinois. That ship has sailed."

Dawn Dannenbring, a lead organizer with Illinois People's Action, explained why her group pushed for a hearing in Chicago and is asking for one in Bloomington. "The law has passed and now we obviously want to minimize what we can," she said. "We've had a lot of people in Chicago say they're against fracking on the basis of climate change. It might not be in their backyard, but they've just had enough of the fossil fuels."

Dannenbring's organization has been emailing 2,000 people each day to urge them to post a "comment a day" on the proposed rules. Suggested comments are scripted by a team of lawyers and activists, and People's Action gives step-by-step instructions on which sections of the proposed regulations to cite when posting to the website. The strategy has already helped add three more hearings to two that were scheduled. The opponents also hope to lengthen the public comment period.

"We are getting comments every day from dozens and dozens of people," Dannenbring said. "We're guessing that at least 200 people are participating on a daily basis."

The Sierra Club was part of a coalition of environmental groups that sat across the table from industry representatives to hash out the state law governing fracking. On Tuesday, it joined anti-fracking groups at a news conference, upset about proposed rules that they say weaken or undermine key provisions of the law, including those dealing with fines, containment of fracking liquids and emergency situations.

"The Sierra Club is opposed to fracking. We wish it wouldn't come to Illinois at all," said Jack Darin, director of the Sierra Club Illinois Chapter. Fracking proponents are concerned that the opposition's tactic of drawing out the public comment period could force oil and gas companies to abandon the state.

Michelle Mejia, IIRON Student Network and Fair Economy Illinois leader, said the fines the state Department of Natural Resources is proposing for companies that break the law are less than she has paid for a single parking ticket in Chicago.

Every four minutes another speaker would lambaste the proposed rules, voicing concerns that fracking would cause earthquakes, expose people to radiation and poison groundwater.

"There's a certain drama going on about how these DNR rules are great or terrible or criminal," said Wolf of the chamber. "It's a draft."

Wolf said the chamber's concern is that language in the rules might open every application to drill to similar protests from environmentalists who don't live near proposed fracking operations.

(c)2013 the Chicago Tribune
Distributed by MCT Information Services

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