Fracking Comes to Illinois. What Consequences Will It Bring?

One of the most popular and controversial energy development techniques in recent years is “fracking.” States from New York to Oklahoma have grappled with the promises and consequences of fracking, including water pollution and seismic activity. Now it appears fracking will begin in Illinois.

Energy companies are scrambling to strike lease deals with landowners and mineral rights owners in the southeastern part of the state, with leasing rates rising as firms vie to win control of more land for drilling. The first test wells in the region are expected to be drilled in the next month or two.

If some of those wells are successful, downstate Illinois could see meaningful oil and gas production, and the jobs and economic activity it generates, for the first time in decades. If so, at least a portion of the state could mimic Pennsylvania, where companies have been drawing gas from huge deposits in previously uneconomic shale formations.

“Right now it’s just a lot of people trying to get their foot in the door,” said David White, a fourth-generation farmer in Wayne County, who has leased some of his 2,000-acre farm there to a unit of Denver-based SM Energy Co. “In the next six months, we’ll know if it’s going to pay out or not.”

There’s a lot at stake for places like Wayne County, a mainly farming area some 270 miles south of Chicago, midway between St. Louis and Louisville, Ky. Wayne County’s largest town, Fairfield, has just 5,500 inhabitants. Economic opportunities are scarce, Mr. White said. “It will definitely help our local economy,” he says.

Companies are paying more than $100 an acre for leasing deals with owners, more than the 53-year-old Mr. White can ever recall being paid during smaller-scale oil drilling activity. In some cases, prices are getting up to $350 per acre, said Brad Richards, executive vice president of the Mount Vernon-based Illinois Oil and Gas Association. The one-time payments give drillers access to the property for a specified period, often several years….

While the shale boom in Pennsylvania has focused on natural gas, energy companies in Illinois are seeking natural gas liquids like ethane, an important component in making plastics, and propane, a fuel. Those are fetching significantly higher commodity prices than heating-quality natural gas, the price of which has plummeted as supplies have surged thanks to fracking.

“Fracking” is the term given to hydraulic fracturing, in which drillers couple horizontal drilling techniques with high-pressure pumping of chemicals, water and sand into shale rock thousands of feet below the ground. Oil and gas then is released from the shale and captured….

While some landowners are excited about the revenues, others worry about the impact on the environment. The large amounts of chemical mixtures and water needed to create fractures in the rock and release the gas and oil have prompted concerns about potential drinking-water contamination, as well as damage to roads and land.

Legislation moving through Springfield would require drillers to disclose all the chemicals they are using in their mixtures and establish standards for concrete well casings and waste-water storage. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Michael Frerichs, D-Champaign, and backed by Faith in Place, a group focused on environmental protection, now is supported by the oil and gas industry after negotiations that wrapped up late last month. The Senate is set to take it up when it returns from its recess April 17.

“We think we can regulate this and protect our land,” said Brian Sauder, policy coordinator for Chicago-based Faith in Place.

“Fracking” is a controversial technique for a variety of reasons both environmental and economic, and the debate is one of many explored in this fall’s downtown offering of SUST 310 Energy and Climate Change. If you are interested in enrolling in one of our courses, find out more by visiting our Sustainability Studies website, calling 1-877-277-5978 (1-877-APPLY RU) or emailing

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