VIENNA — This is the Illinois that many people never see — the sparsely populated southern tip where flat farmland gives way to rolling hills, rocky outcrops, thick forests and cypress swamps.

Blacktopped county roads wend through no-stoplight towns. Locals speak in soft drawls and talk of generations who’ve lived on the same land or in the same villages. The remote and rugged Shawnee National Forest attracts hikers, campers and horseback riders, and offers a stark contrast to the rest of a state that largely has been plowed, paved or suburbanized.

But many here are beginning to brace for change as the Illinois Legislature considers regulations that could set off a rush among energy companies to drill deep in the southern Illinois bedrock for oil and natural gas. The crews would be using a process known as high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” that has transformed the landscape in places like North Dakota and Pennsylvania.

After drilling intensively in many states in the last few years, the industry is now preparing to push into new territory, hoping to tap deposits long considered out of reach. Residents here — and states like New York and California that also are part of this next frontier — have heard the angry clamor over fracking elsewhere, but most have little experience with the oil industry.

Already, drillers have leased hundreds of thousands of acres throughout southern Illinois, including in scenic Johnson and Pope counties, which hasn’t seen conventional drilling and where people aren’t sure what to expect if a fracking rush becomes a reality.

Some envision the kind of economic boom they’ve heard about in other states: tens of thousands of workers drilling for oil and gas, local businesses barely keeping up with demand and many municipal coffers flush with cash.

Others are spooked by stories of housing shortages, towns overrun with strangers, torn-up roads and claims of polluted water — and worry that drilling would forever alter the serenity, beauty and very character of an area they consider special.

“This really is a double-edged sword,” says Ron Duncan, Johnson County’s economic development director, standing on a corner in downtown Vienna, the once-bustling county seat that now has just a handful of businesses and government offices.

“This town could use an economic infusion,” he says, pausing to wave to an elderly man riding his lawnmower around the courthouse square. “But it’s also where people love the rural life, the natural beauty and knowing their neighbors.”

Fracking uses high-pressure mixtures of water, sand or gravel and chemicals to crack rock formations and release oil and natural gas deep underground. Combined with horizontal drilling, it allows access to formerly out-of-reach deposits and has opened large areas of the country for exploration. It has pushed U.S. oil production to its highest level in 20 years, the Energy Department says, and natural gas production to an all-time high, with new estimates that the nation has almost 2,400 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas.

In Illinois, the industry is eyeing the New Albany Shale formation, and could begin drilling as soon as this summer if the legislature passes regulations introduced in February. That’s not a problem for many people in Illinois counties where conventional oil and gas drilling has been going on for over a century.

“Where we operate now, people aren’t afraid,” said Brad Richards, executive vice president of the Illinois Oil and Gas Association, who says fracking is safe and concerns about its environmental impact overblown.

But those in Pope and Johnson counties, areas Richard said might hold significant oil reserves, are divided.

The Pope County Board of Commissioners recently voted to support a 2-year drilling moratorium; bills filed in the Illinois House and Senate calling for a drilling delay have gotten little support.

“We need jobs,” says board Chairman Larry Richards. “But will they just bring their own people in, tear our county up, destroy it and then pack up and leave us with a mess?”

Even so, many locals have leased land to oil companies, regarding it as a quick infusion of cash — a onetime payment of about $50 per acre — though they’ll receive royalties if oil production is successful.

“I don’t care whether I get (a well) or not,” says 69-year-old Johnson County farmer Thomas Trover, who leased more than 1,300 acres to a Kansas oil company. “I got my $60,000.”

Duncan, who raises cattle and hay on about 150 acres, says he also signed a lease, but only to protect himself: His neighbors were leasing, so the drillers could have fracked underneath his land anyway. Plus, he wanted to try to protect a creek that flows through his property.

He worries that fracking could deplete local water supplies, that there already is a shortage of rental housing and that a large stream of strangers might be more than some locals bargained for. But he also understands the wider economic benefit that could come if fracking creates jobs where there are no factories or Wal-Marts —the biggest employers are two prisons near Vienna and the school systems.

The poverty rate in Johnson County is about 15 percent, but it’s almost 20 percent among Pope County’s 4,400 residents.

So, fracking is a gamble that many are willing to take.

“It could be a real good thing,” says 23-year-old Frank Johnson, who lives in the Pope County seat of Golconda, a shrinking Ohio River town of 670. He drives an hour each way to his job as a mechanic, but says many of his friends, “had to go in the military to get out of town,” and get a job.

John Towns, who opened the Sweetwater Saloon in Golconda three years ago after a long career as a river captain, says fracking “sure enough wouldn’t hurt nothing.”

“It wouldn’t bother me a bit,” says Towns, a 62-year-old who’s lived here all his life and watched friends and neighbors move away. “And maybe some of the workers would want to drink a beer.”

But 68-year-old Barney Bush, chairman of a Shawnee Indian settlement in northeastern Pope County, near the Garden of the Gods — ancient rock formations and cliffs in the Shawnee National Forest — says this area is too special to put at risk for what could be short-term gain.

“This is still a hard place to live in, but it’s everything that’s left to me,” says Bush, who draws his water from a natural spring and hunts the hardwood forests for wild onions, mushrooms and herbs. He fears fracking fluid would spill during drilling and pollute the water, that the sites would destroy forests and bring hundreds of tanker trucks rumbling through the hills.

“If they poison the water here, that’s not just for a week, that’s for eternity as far as we know,” Bush says.

A regulatory bill setting rules for drilling is lingering in a House committee while industry and lawmakers hash out last-minute details.

Wayne Woolsey, the owner of Wichita, Kan.-based Woolsey Energy Corp., has staked out his land, buying leases in Johnson, Pope and eight other counties.

He says he’s ready to get going: “If this is as good as I think it is, it will be a tremendous opportunity for the state of Illinois — which, by the way is in great debt.”

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(14) comments

MickeeD
MickeeD

Clean drinking water and breathable air is more important than money or oil. Fracking is so not a good idea.

StraightTalk
StraightTalk

Fracking coming to Southern Illinois. Get ready for toss up RV settings, you notice I didn't say parks, cause they are just plain ugly and will pop up on anyone's vacant land that is looking to cash in. Get ready for our roads to be destroyed. Our local county governmnts need to use their instant fortunes and tax income to keep up with the infrastructure destruction that will come, or our next generation faces ghost towns, no jobs and substandard roads in 10 years. Once fracking begins in earnest, many local workers will abandon their current jobs to "hit it big", make fast money. After the initial hiring of locals, the workers will come from all over the country, many here illegally, or to be politically correct, Unauthorized Workers, still illegal, but now getting an Illinois Drivers License. And, what happens in 10 years? Towns abandoned, left over shabby RV settings sitting empty, jobs gone, youth leaving SI chasing the jobs and environment they deserve. Will Fracking cause environmental damage and deplete our water? The is yet to be determined, however, when the final results are in, 10-15 years down the road it will be too late to reverse or celebrate the outcome. Our friend from Pennsylvania has sent us all the message, "get ready, you can't stop Fracking".

nonpartisan
nonpartisan

StraightTalk - I share your fears.

The Pope County Board Chairman Larry Richards said it clearly in few words:"But will they just bring their own people in, tear our county up, destroy it and then pack up and leave us with a mess?”

They will. They will extract their profits, ruin this area and leave a disaster in their wake. Just look what happened to the once beautiful landscape in West Virginia after the mountaintop miners were done. Look at wind farms in Kansas, where once beautiful Flint Hills are now marred by hundreds of ugly windmill generators.

unclebobby
unclebobby

I live in Pennsylvania and do not, let me repeat, do not underestimate the power of those energy companies over politicians. In some locations the efforts have been noble, yet other communities have suffered a myriad of problems such as roads being destroyed by heavy trucks, water being fouled, water supplies (creeks, streams, reservoirs) being sold or run down, mancamps at the wells sites, men away from home (LA,Kansas, OK, TX, etc.) "entertaining" the locals at night, etc. By all means use some form of zoning to protect community reservoirs that supply water to your community as if it is fouled you are in big trouble. Remember drilling is a very dangerous occupation with the potential for error always there. Accidents happen, and sometimes these accidents kill people or ruin the environment. I think this should proceed slowly in southern Illinois. It could be very beneficial or very destructive depending on the circumstances. Be on the lookout for "sweetheart" deals with landowners and with politicians in Springfield. Remember, everyione has a price and these companies got money.

BlueDog74
BlueDog74

I think it all boils down to $$$$$$$. I was fairly open to fracking in the beginning, but my reservations regarding the practice have grown over the past year or so. People are so quick to look at the short-term (in other words, a quick profit) and refuse to think long-term. What are the long-term effects of hydraulic fracturing? Can anyone give an honest factual answer to that question? I don’t think so.

I don’t really like the big ugly windmills either, but I do like clean water and soil that is not contaminated. Personally, I’m a solar and geo-thermal type of guy, but realize the economic obstacles that exist.

I think short-term solutions should revolve around conservation and efficiency. I know that doesn’t totally appease hard core environmentalists, but we have to play the cards we’re dealt. Eventually, I like to think affordable and practical clean technology will be available as science and free markets will inevitably go hand in hand someday, in my humble opinion. Until then, let’s not sell ourselves out for a few royalty checks and theoretical jobs that may or may not come to fruition.

By the way, speaking of geo-thermal, if anyone is interested, check out how other countries are taking advantage of their geothermal potential (in particular, Iceland, Philippines, and El Salvador). Very encouraging.

http://www.geo-energy.org/pdf/reports/GEA_International_Market_Report_Final_May_2010.pdf

alb822
alb822

Fracking is the worse thing imaginable for IL. What little economic value localities glean from it will not be worth the permanent environmental degradation. In current operations in other states, as companies have been guilty of carelessness in how they drill wells and dispose of waste. The landscape in those areas is a horrible wasteland -- a meager 50 trillion cubic feet of gas, only enough to meet U.S. needs for two years. TWO MEASLY YEARS OF ENERGY in exchange for destroying the homes and lives of millions of people for tens of thousands of millennia.

PA & NY residents all regret the decision of their legislators to permit this atrocity. There are too many loopholes. Currently there are no special rules on fracking with water, propane, or other nonwater methods.Some wells get fracked multiple times, and natural gas actually has a higher greenhouse gas footprint larger than coal and oil, because of the role of methane. The documents reveal that the wastewater, which is hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat this type of waste is then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water. This wastewater contains radioactivity at levels far higher than the level that federal regulators say is safe for these treatment plants to handle. The EPA has not intervened. Legislative attempts to allow the EPA to do their job & heavily regulate the industry to safeguard a healthy quality of life have failed.

The fracking operations so close to the New Madrid & Wabash Faults are invitations to catastrophic disasters. A rash of earthquakes reported in central Arkansa has resulted in the halt of drilling operations there.

OLD JOE
OLD JOE

alb822, I was going to quit commenting on this thread until I read your story. You say Fracking is the worst thing imaginable for IL. Stop and think about our politicians. Then come back and say fracking is the worst thing that can happen to IL. If our politicians would of keep Illinois finances is order, Illinois wouldn't be starving for fracking jobs an taxes.

The Sky Is Falling
The Sky Is Falling

You've got to love it. The politicians are banking on being able to pay for 40 years worth of sins with fracking profits. Nothing like hedging the future of the state with something equivalent to a lotto scratch off.

The country's energy needs have now become laughable to me. No one has real solutions they just complain about the status quo. Can't drill for oil, don't want to frack, can' use oil sands, windmills are ugly, solar isn't efficient, hydro electric destroys ecosystems, nuclear is nuclear, coal is dirty did I miss anything?

OLD JOE
OLD JOE

Sky, we are damn if we do and damn if we don't. Personally I think the Amish has the right ideas. No TV, there would be very few lazy fat couch potatoes saying give me. Everyone would have to work if they want to eat.

My wife and I have talked. Our next move will be to Kentucky, were taxes is cheaper. We want well water. Solar energy. Tv antenna. A wood burner and land to grow/raise most of our own food. We are both tired of being a slave to the all mighty dollar. Hopefully in the next 3 years?

Community Organizer
Community Organizer

Have you ever seen the unsightly useless windmills marching across farmland in northern Illinois south of Joliet? There may come a point where you have no choice because of what your neighbors choose to do.

Ishmael
Ishmael

"Have you ever seen the unsightly useless windmills marching across farmland in northern Illinois south of Joliet?" - Community Organizer

Wanna compare the environmental impact of windmills and fracking a well? Really? Good luck wif' 'dat!

The impact of living next to a windmill can be cured with a nice set of heavy blinds that you might have to close a couple hours a day to keep the "flickering shadow" out of your house if it even bothers you at all.

Let's just say the impact of living next door to a fracking site can't be dealt with that easily.

OLD JOE
OLD JOE

Illinois lawmakers sold the states soul to the company store.

What other choice does Illinois lawmakers have after they pissed away all the tax payers money. Run many of our jobs and population out of state?

Our democrat political party is doing their best now, selling off our environment for a few $$$, encouraging illegals to move to Illinois to increase population.
These actions could very well be the last rabbit in the democrat magic hat of tricks, to keep the free handout system going and the voters happy?

Ishmael
Ishmael

"Duncan, who raises cattle and hay on about 150 acres, says he also signed a lease, but only to protect himself: His neighbors were leasing, so the drillers could have fracked underneath his land anyway." - article

This is the scary, and unfortunate, part of the whole fracking issue. There may come a point where you have no choice because of what your neighbors choose to do.

BlueDog74
BlueDog74

Totally, 100% agree. It’s unfortunate that Mr. Duncan felt the need to go this route, but who can blame him? At some point you do have to bite the bullet and protect your own interests.

But I think the most telling comment of this whole piece was from Thomas Trover who flat out said, “I don’t care whether I get [a well] or not. I got my $60,000”. To me, that attitude is going to be the biggest point of controversy in Southern Illinois and will no doubt divide us. I’m willing to bet that eventually you’re going to start seeing neighbor versus neighbor scenarios play out, if you haven’t already.

It’s no coincidence, in my opinion, that a lot of these techniques are being used in and marketed to impoverished areas. If you think about it, it may not be ethical, but it’s good business. And it’s hard to argue that this area could use a heavy dose of investment and capital.

However, municipalities, counties, and states need to be mindful of not only long-term effects, but also what they have right now. Will people be as willing to visit our parks, forests, rivers, and lakes knowing that there are gas and oil wells all around them? Look at what happened to the gulf after the BP disaster.

I don’t think the fracturing debate is going to be settled in Washington or even Springfield. I think the battle will be waged in our county seats and city halls. And that may not be a bad thing.

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