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Scenic, struggling S. Illinois braces for oil rush

Monday - 5/6/2013, 6:28am  ET

In this April 9, 2013 photo, majestic rock formations attract outdoor enthusiasts, tourists, climbers and backpackers at Garden of the Gods Wilderness Area near Herod, Ill. Southern Illinoisans have hopes and fears surrounding the high-volume oil and gas drilling that may be starting in the Shawnee National Forest. Many people are beginning to brace for change as state lawmakers consider regulations that would allow energy companies to begin drilling deep in the southern Illinois bedrock for oil and natural gas, using a process known as high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” that has transformed the landscape in places like North Dakota and Pennsylvania. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

TAMMY WEBBER
Associated Press

VIENNA, Ill. (AP) -- 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 in 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.

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