State regulator whose speech included anti-fracking parody is reassigned

News-DemocratMarch 28, 2014 

— The head of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources division setting up rules for hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas has been reassigned to a different job at IDNR, according to a state legislator who pushed to allow the so-called fracking practice in Illinois.

The move comes after lawmakers learned of a public presentation given by the regulator, which included a parody of the "Twelve Days of Christmas" and "Winter Wonderland" Christmas songs, set to anti-fracking lyrics.

State Rep. Brandon Phelps said Friday that DNR regulator Mitch Cohen, who headed the agency's Oil and Gas Division, had been reassigned.

Cohen could not be reached for comment.

"I was told by somebody from the governor's office that he has been moved from his Oil and Gas Division position, as the attorney on the fracking rules, and has been reassigned to another division," Phelps said. "I know he's not a part of the Oil and Gas Division anymore."

In June, Gov. Pat Quinn signed the state law allowing fracking, following a long debate in the legislature. The law contains some general rules for fracking, but also calls for the Department of Natural Resources to set up the final regulations. There have been public hearings to gather input from stakeholders, but so far the rules have not been finalized.

Phelps, D-Harrisburg, said he and other lawmakers who support fracking recently called Cohen into a meeting.

"We wanted to know why the rules have not been done. They were supposed to be done within a year of the governor signing the bill," Phelps said. "Every group that sat at the negotiating table agreed to this bill. It got a lot of votes, and the governor signed it, so we wanted to know why there has been no movement."

Phelps said DNR couldn't adequately explain why the rules weren't finished.

"They never would say. They said they had a lot of public comments, and they did not have enough staff," Phelps said.

Phelps said lawmakers eventually asked Cohen if he's anti-fracking.

"We asked him, 'Are you against fracking or anything like that?' He said, 'No, I've got to remain neutral. That's my job,'" Phelps said.

The legislators obtained a copy of the PowerPoint presentation Cohen used in his speech, and it includes the parody songs. The lyrics stated, as an example, that "gone away is the bluebird," due to fracking.

Another example: "Fire bells ring, are you listening? In the lane, oil is glistening. A terrible sight, the gas drills at night, walking in a fracked-up wonderland." Also: "We'll frolic and play when we run them away, walking in a fracked-up wonderland."

Another lyric took a jab at legislators: "On the first day of Christmas, the Senate brought to me, a half-baked safety guarantee."

The speech was given earlier this month at a college in Chicago.

"Why would you attach that to your presentation if you did not believe that?" Phelps said. "I think he showed his true colors by including those songs in his presentation. When you read the verses, it's pretty easy to tell that he's not very friendly to the oil and gas companies, I'll tell you that."

Supporters say fracking will bring thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in investments to the Southern Illinois economy. Opponents say it will hurt the environment.

Spokesmen for Quinn and for IDNR did not immediately have comments on the matter Friday.

Phelps said he fears the issue will further delay the start of fracking.

"That's what we're worried about," he said. "It's just hurting the state, with the amount of revenue and jobs we could have."

Wayne Woolsey, owner of Kansas-based Woolsey Energy, who says the company has already invested more than $50 million in Illinois as it tries to begin drilling operations, said it's been "very frustrating" to wait for the rules to get implemented. He said Illinois' regulations will be the most comprehensive in the country.

"It could be a significant boon to the state of Illinois in creating jobs and tax revenues," Woolsey said. "The rules and regulations in the state will protect the environment. All we ask is that no unnecessary, costly road blocks or obstacles be created."

Annette McMichael of Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment said Phelps is more concerned about starting fracking than implementing safe regulations.

"There are at least 30 things wrong with the rules that were originally proposed by IDNR, making regulations weaker, not stronger. IDNR is required to respond to the 36,000 comments regarding these weakened rules. Of course IDNR is too short-staffed to do this," McMichael said.

She added, "It's sad that IDNR has become a political football instead of being allowed to fulfill their mission of protecting our state's natural resources."

Contact reporter Brian Brueggemann at bbrueggemann@bnd.com or 618-239-2511.

Contact reporter Brian Brueggemann at bbrueggemann@bnd.com or 618-239-2511.

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