FAIRFIELD, Ill. — While agriculture is the major industry in
Wayne County, natural resources far beneath the soil also get a lot of
It is among the top 10 oil-producing counties in Illinois,
yielding more than a half-million barrels a year, according to the Illinois Oil
and Gas Association. And where oil is, natural gas is not far behind.
That puts the county at the forefront of the recent
enthusiasm over hydraulic fracturing, a process in which oil and natural gas is
extracted through the injection of water and chemicals deep into the ground.
While fracturing has been performed for decades, the method
of horizontal drilling — in which one well is created and minerals are extracted
over a long run — is relatively new.
Tens of millions of dollars have been invested by energy
companies on mineral leases in Wayne and surrounding counties, most of that on
farmland. One company alone has purportedly spent more than $50 million.
The first test well in Illinois was drilled on a Wayne
In response to the interest in “fracking,” as it is called,
Illinois last year passed landmark legislation regulating the industry. It has
been widely hailed as the strictest yet fairest in the nation.
The problem, according to state Rep. Brandon Phelps,
D-Harrisburg, is that the law’s rules have not been written, causing frustrating
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources is required by
law to produce rules pertaining to a law within one year of the governor’s
signature. That places the deadline for the fracking law in June.
“The delay is in the rulemaking process,” Phelps told
following a meeting he and other lawmakers had with the head of the department
last week. “People think they’re dragging their feet. You’ve got to have the
rules done before you can start fracking of any kind.”
Fracking could rejuvenate the anemic southern Illinois
economy as it has done in the Northern Plains, Phelps believes.
“We see what it did in North Dakota,” he said. “Southern
Illinois always has high unemployment. I don’t think this is a boat we can miss.
With the amount of revenue it’s going to generate when these companies come in,
and the number of jobs it will bring, it’s a game-changer for our area.
“This is the safest bill in the country. That’s why, when it
was voted on, every group at the table was in favor of it, even environmental
Many of the mineral leases obtained by energy companies are
nearing expiration, something that concerns Phelps.
“The problem is, the longer we wait, the more these
companies are leaving Illinois and setting up shop in other states,” he said.
“We’ve had some companies ready to spend millions and millions of dollars in
southern Illinois, but they’re tired of waiting.
“There was one company supposedly that would spend $1
billion — with a B — in southern Illinois. Think how many jobs that would
create. It’s just huge. I know there’s a lot of opposition. But everybody at the
table was in favor of this bill. This was agreed to.”
Phelps doesn’t believe opposition to fracking is entirely to
blame for the delay. Though IDNR was forced to address concerns put forth by
numerous individuals and groups during the public comment period, Phelps
believes the bigger problem has been a short-staffed department.
“They told us today they have hired more staff for this
process,” he said. “We’re going to take them at their word.”