The ‘35,000 Comment’ Anti-Fracking Ruse

Thirty-five thousand is a number that gets your attention.

Images of a packed baseball stadium immediately come to mind, and anyone who has been to a Major League Baseball game knows that 35,000 people making noise is hard to ignore. Just ask the visiting team’s pitcher.

Maybe that’s why the “ban fracking” activists across Illinois have claimed that State Rep. John Bradley’s (D-Marion) recently-proposed bill to expedite the Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Regulatory Act would “silence 35,000 voices” in Illinois.

The Illinois Environmental Council states on its website that more than 30,000 Illinoisans have submitted comments, and that moving forward with development would “cut the public completely out of Illinois’ established rulemaking process on fracking.”

But the suggestion that more than 30,000 individual Illinoisans have submitted comments to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) is contradicted by the activists themselves, based on a review of their statements during the months-long comment process that ended in January.

To be sure, the IDNR has likely received more than 30,000 comments on the law. But there is no limit on how many times an individual is allowed to comment, and the anti-fracking movement has encouraged its followers to exploit that flaw in the system.

The reasoning should be obvious: After being soundly defeated last year, when an overwhelming majority and bipartisan coalition of Illinois lawmakers refused to ban fracking and instead passed a regulatory structure, the activists needed a new strategy. The bill was democratically-passed, by a combined vote of 160 to 12 in the Illinois House and Senate.

As it turns out, a handful of people sure can make a lot of noise if they repeat the same thing over and over – say, 35,000 times or so. If they couldn’t get a ban to pass democratically, the activists figured they could achieve the same end administratively.

Since the regulatory act became law last spring, activists have set out to “overwhelm” the understaffed IDNR with comments to delay enactment of the legislation. For example:

Jeff Biggers, an anti-fracking activist whose work has been highlighted by SAFE, wrote in the Huffington Post last November:

“As Illinois native and renowned scientist Sandra Steingraber has admonished — and done well in New York — the only way to keep Illinois from fast-tracking the incredibly flawed rules into law is to bury the understaffed IDNR officials during the public comment period, who are required to respond.” (emphasis added)

An organizer from Chicagoland Against Fracking said at an event last October:

“The IDNR has to review each and every one of our public comments, we can completely overwhelm the system.” (emphasis added)

The Eco Justice Collaborative, in a post entitled “Stop Hydraulic Fracturing in Illinois,” also encouraged activists to “bury the DNR” to create a delay:

“Your comments can call out very real health and environmental concerns associated with these new rules.  They also can ‘bury the DNR’ in comments with the goal of slowing down the process of fast-tracking the rules into law and buying additional time to explore a potential moratorium with the Illinois legislature.” (emphasis added)

Eco Justice Collaborative also told people they “can submit as many comments as you like,” while the Illinois Green Party said to submit comments and “do so as often as possible.”

Illinois People’s Action and an assortment of other “ban fracking” groups organized a “comment a day” feature, in which users could easily submit a form comment as many times as they wanted. There are less than 50 unique comments, but IPA brags that over 15,000 submissions were made. A separate release from SAFE announced that over 20,000 anti-fracking comments had been sent to IDNR, including duplicates.

The strategy of delay has worked, at least so far. According to numerous reports, the IDNR has managed to respond to just 25 percent of the submitted comments, well off the pace needed to meet the November deadline to complete the process.

While we wait, leases are expiring across Illinois, denying landowners the chance to benefit from development. Opportunities are presenting themselves in other states, and some companies have already left Illinois in response.

Many companies are staying, but a prolonged delay could force more drillers to abandon Illinois, taking with them the jobs and private investment that a financially-strapped state like Illinois could certainly use.

Rep. Bradley and other state leaders clearly saw the economic damage these carefully-orchestrated delay tactics have already caused, which is why he introduced what he openly described as a “jobs” bill last Friday that would have codified the IDNR’s rule-making process and made hydraulic fracturing in Illinois a reality.

The bill, which was not without its flaws (it included a symbolic moratorium on fracking in northern Illinois), was dropped from consideration earlier this week largely due to Republican opposition over the moratorium language.  The point, however, was made by the mere fact that legislation of this nature was introduced in the first place.

The anti-fracking fringe lost the debate on fracking, as unprecedented support and compromise from both sides of the issue – industry and environmental groups alike, along with labor, agriculture groups, and many others – helped craft perhaps the toughest and most comprehensive regulatory structure for hydraulic fracturing in the United States.

Now these same activists are trying to delay job creation and economic development in a state that desperately needs both. The fact that they’re doing so by manipulating numbers to suggest there is a broad opposition to fracking would be laughable if it weren’t creating a tragic reality for real working families across southern Illinois.


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