Highland News Leader

Attorney: Township has ‘limited power’ when it comes to fracking

Steve Safford said people who want to stop fracking have tried challenging permits and using zoning to stop the practice elsewhere.
Steve Safford said people who want to stop fracking have tried challenging permits and using zoning to stop the practice elsewhere. News Leader

Helvetia Township’s attorney believes the township has only “limited power” when it comes to stopping the high-volume oil and gas drilling technique known as fracking.

“A township can only do that which the law tells you to do. You can’t go beyond,” attorney Don Johannes told Helvetia Township trustees at their meeting Oct. 6.

About 40 people attended the monthly meeting, the vast majority representing the Great Highland Area Concerns Citizens (GHACC). The group has asked township trustees to ban horizontal hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, and even had legal counsel draw up a draft ordinance for the township to consider enacting.

Fracking generally uses a mixture of water, chemicals and sand to crack rock formations deep underground and release trapped oil and gas. Opponents fear it can cause air and water pollution and health problems, though industry officials contend the method is safe.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources regulates the process. However, with the falling price of oil, IDNR has yet to issue a permit for a fracking well.

Whether or not townships have the authority to ban fracking is unclear. The 2013 state law allowing the process says: “the name of the city, village, or incorporated town and be accompanied with a certified copy of the official consent for the hydraulic fracturing operations to occur from the municipal authorities where the well site is proposed to be located.”

However, there is no mention of township or county consent required, though counties can file written objections.

The fracking law does say that “all applicable local laws” are not preempted by the act, leaving a possible window open for local oversight.

But Johannnes said there are a number of things in the GHACC’s proposed ordinance that he finds troubling. While the township does have some power to regulate the environment, Johannes aid GHACC’s proposed ordinance “goes way beyond that.”

Johannes reminded the township trustees it’s their elected duty to follow the laws of the state.

“If you do something that you have not been given authority to do, you have violated your oath,” he said.

Steve Safford, a member of the GHACC, said people who want to stop fracking have tried challenging permits and using zoning to stop the practice elsewhere.

“Our new way is to exercise our fundamental constitutional right in our township,” Safford said.

Kay Ahaus, who lives on 200 Rinderer Road, said the GHACC just wants to “stop the destruction before it starts.”

“As the great Yogi Berra said, ‘We have come to a fork in the road.’ Will we, in Helvetia Township, assert our right to self govern or we let oil/gas industries obliterate in our community?” she said.

Ahaus said she and her husband, Bill, moved to Highland 10 years ago from Oklahoma and were glad to leave that “ravaged oil patch.”

“We looked for a community that cared for all its people, for the land, and community. We found it here in Helvetia Township,” she said.

Ahaus told the township trustees allowing fracking “will change our communities forever.”

Johannes said he will continue to research the law before he makes a final recommendation to the Helevtia Township trustees at their Nov. 3 meeting.

Even if trustees decided it was not in their purview to ban fracking outright, Johnannes said the township could pass a resolution saying the boards supports GHACC in its beliefs.

“I see where people are coming from today,” he said. “There are a lot of frustrated people.”

What is fracking?

Illinois’ geology is comprised primarily of sedimentary rocks such as limestone, sandstone and shale that formed in ancient oceanic environments. Shale is an excellent source rock for oil and gas formation because it is rich in organic material, but its permeability is very low. With the traditional drilling methods of the past, tapping into these formations would have produced little oil or natural gas.

Fracking involves drilling vertically into a deposit of shale, and then steering the borehole horizontally into the target formation. Next a well casing is installed and perforated, and a highly pressurized stream of water, proprietary chemicals and sand is injected into the boreholes to create fractures within the shale and increase its permeability. Sand is deposited within the fractures to keep them open, allowing oil or natural gas to escape to the well head. Several horizontal wells can be completed within a single vertical borehole, either in different radial directions or in target formations at different depths.

Source: Northern Illinois University