January 12, 2014
The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan
Fracking safeguards must be set in place
Hydraulic fracturing might be the ultimate hot-button issue facing our state, especially the region we so fondly call Southern Illinois. It is considered the doorway to an economic boom by the energy industry, but an ecological bomb by those who strive to protect the environment.
It is not a theoretical dispute. The Illinois General Assembly last year approved regulations permitting and governing hydraulic fracturing in the state. The law allows the process to be used in Illinois, once the process of public hearings and rule making is completed.
That could add many more months to the six that have elapsed since the passage of hydraulic fracturing regulations. Energy industry officials are concerned about the process becoming too lengthy, which could put Illinois at a competitive disadvantage against other states with energy potential.
Environmentalists, however, feel the process is moving too quickly. Despite the law, some still favor an outright ban against hydraulic fracturing in Illinois. Others support a moratorium that would permit the further expansion and gathering of scientific findings on the controversial process.
There does not appear to be adequate middle ground between the opposing forces. Compromise seems unlikely. The camps are polarized, even in the communities that have the most to gain, or lose, through the use of hydraulic fracturing to seek and release energy.
Proponents say the measure will create thousands of good, high-paying jobs — perhaps as many as 70,000 — in manufacturing, mining, trucking, rail, engineering and road building. It also will create a demand for more housing, retail shopping and consumer services that grows as drilling and oil production expands. Those demands mean new jobs, new opportunities.
Opponents don't believe the new jobs will be numerous or lasting. They dismiss the scientific claims of energy interests as junk science, findings intended only to support the use of fracking. They see potential for groundwater contamination, the possibility of triggering earthquakes and other ecological risks through hydraulic fracturing — which uses a high-pressure infusion of water, chemicals and sand to crack open rock formations far below ground to release trapped oil and gas.
Where does the truth lie? There may be a greater preponderance of science supporting hydraulic fracturing as a safe process when properly regulated and policed. But those who oppose the process raised some realistic concerns in a series of public hearings held across the state — including a Carbondale session dominated by foes.
For example, while the new law requires drillers to store wastewater in tanks, rather than open pits, an exception exists to allow the use of pits in an emergency. Some fear emergencies would be claimed routinely, and that heavy rains and floods could wash the chemical mixture into drinking water.
We share in that concern.
The reasonable and calm pursuit of rules protecting our lives and resources cannot be hijacked into a permanent holding pattern. There is a tremendous opportunity in the New Albany Shale, but one that will not last forever.
The law permits hydraulic fracturing in Illinois, but it must be done with every possible safeguard in place and continually monitored for compliance — and meaningful enforcement and corrective measures when corners are cut, or regulations ignored.
This may be our one golden opportunity. But it is most certainly our only home.
January 12, 2014
The (Champaign) News-Gazette
Hearty response to cold, snow
The worst conditions bring out the best in people.
Last weekend, East Central Illinois and much of the Midwest endured a blizzard followed by brutally cold weather that shut down schools, closed roads and pretty much made prisoners of people in their homes. That, unfortunately, was the least of it. The people in real jeopardy were those caught out in the weather and in need of assistance.
It's during times like that when cynics are reminded of the essential goodness of most people and their willingness to lend a hand to people in need.
Volunteers at the Daily Bread Soup Kitchen went out of their way to make sure that hungry people were fed. Members of the Eagle Mountain Assembly of God in Tuscola provided shelter to roughly 80 people who found themselves trapped on impassable roads, including the Southern Illinois University men's basketball team. Then there were untold individuals who helped single individuals who were in trouble, like the Ohio trucker, Mike Janke, who came to the rescue of a state snowplow driver, William Argus, stuck on his way to work.
There's no need to be Pollyannish about it. People were just doing what their hearts and the weather conditions commanded.
But Champaign resident Argus spoke for many when he expressed gratitude to his rescuer. Diverted off I-74 and then trapped on an impassable U.S. 150, Argus took shelter in Janke's well-stocked semi.
"It was Alaska-type of weather. The man saved my life. There are good people out there," Argus said.
Indeed, there are. The problem is that it often takes some sort of tragedy or weather disaster to serve as a reminder.
The weather outside was frightful, and inside it wasn't all that delightful. But our collective brush with the power of Mother Nature and the danger that it posed did provide a useful reminder that people are at their best when they work together in difficult conditions for the common good.
January 11, 2014
Rockford Register Star
Boeing's interest shows Rockford's up to the test
Surprised that Rockford was among the top five contenders for Boeing's new airplane factory?
We're not. We've believed in the unlimited potential of Chicago Rockford International Airport for a long time. Not because we're knee-jerk, rah-rah civic boosters - we're not - but because we know it already is an economic powerhouse, job generator and has the promise of much greater things to come.
Here's the surprising story. The Chicago-based Boeing Company, makers of passenger jets and military aircraft, conducted a nationwide search late last year for a place to build its 777X passenger airliner. Some 22 states submitted 54 sites for Boeing's consideration. The factory will employ 8,000 skilled workers.
Initially, Illinois was not invited to bid. But Gov. Pat Quinn wanted our state to get into the competition, "so we invite ourselves in," said Dave Roeder of the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
At the center of Illinois' proposal was Rockford's airport, which was able to meet Boeing's conditions, among them: a site of at least 300 acres - Rockford offered 400 acres; rail access; easy access to interstate highways; a runway of at least 9,000 feet - Rockford has a 10,000 foot runway and one that is 8,200 feet.
Boeing leaders came to Rockford and had extensive conversations with airport, economic development, university, community college leaders and with industry chiefs whose companies supply Boeing.
The Boeing team was set to return Monday morning. But late Friday night, Boeing's Machinist Union workers in Washington state narrowly approved wage and benefit concessions the company demanded in return for keeping 777X production in there.
The company called off the search for a new site. However, union members have appealed the vote's results to the National Labor Relations Board. So, there's at least a small possibility that the site competition could be renewed.
Even if it isn't, Rockford can take heart that its airport clearly impressed leaders of the most important airplane manufacturer in the country and one of the two most important in the world, the other being European giant Airbus.
We will have a great future in 21st century manufacturing, throughout northern Illinois, if we rise to the challenge.
We believe that providing good jobs at good wages is the best way to transform Rockford, so that if Boeing has another manufacturing project in the pipeline, RFD can land it.
January 10, 2014
Our View: Underwater mortgages drag Illinois economy
Being underwater on the mortgage is a drag for homeowners and for our state's economy.
The outsized loans can have a number of negative effects on these unfortunate borrowers, all of it adding up to them having less money to spend and less opportunity to meet their goals than they otherwise might.
Market data shows that Illinois has a higher percentage of underwater homeowners than most states.
According to a report released Thursday by RealtyTrac, a real-estate information company based in Irvine, Calif., Illinois has the third-highest percentage of homeowners whose properties are "deeply underwater," behind only Nevada (38 percent) and Florida (34 percent).
RealtyTrac defines "deeply underwater" as those whose mortgages are at least 125 percent of the market value of their home. Statewide, about 32 percent of homeowners - about 775,000 households - are "deeply underwater," while in the Chicago market, it's 33 percent, the report shows.
Some might be tempted to blame these homeowners for making bad investments, and that is partly their responsibility. However, let us not forget the wisdom that once prevailed about the relative safety of investing in homeownership, how people were encouraged to buy homes by people everywhere and how eager banks were to lend this money during the housing boom that ended in the middle of the last decade.
Today, those underwater homeowners who have chosen not to abandon their homes to foreclosure have less money to spend on other goods and services than they would if their mortgage were in line with their property's value. Those who do not have the money to cover the shortfall in their loan-to-value ratio might have missed out on opportunities to take advantage of lower interest rates or to move in pursuit of new career prospects. The number of homes that are deeply underwater nationwide shrunk to about 9.3 million nationally in December, down from a peak of 12.8 million in May 2012, according to RealtyTrac. It's a sign that home prices are increasing around the country.
But there remain obstacles for homeowners and for the recovery of the housing market. Until property values begin to appreciate at a faster pace, or more is done to relieve underwater homeowners of some of their burden, Illinois economic recovery will continue to face a headwind.