Shale Development Would Revitalize Illinois’ “25 Worst Counties”

The New York Times recently ranked the 25 worst Illinois counties to live in.  To make this determination, a wide spectrum of factors was taken into account, including unemployment rates and household incomes.

That considered, it wasn’t all that surprising that 17 of the 25 “worst” Illinois counties happen to be clustered south of Interstate 70, which is undisputedly the poorest area of the state.

However, Southern Illinois also happens to be the portion of the Land of Lincoln that sits atop immense shale resources.  It plays a large role in the state’s proud oil and gas history as well.  A vast majority of production occurred in Southern Illinois back in the 1930s and 40s when Illinois was the third-largest crude oil producing state in the U.S.

Its steady decline was attributed to this cold, hard fact: Most of the conventional vertical sites in Southern Illinois had been drilled. But the prospect of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, which could unlock shale resources previously unattainable, had given the region new hope – or so many in Little Egypt thought when Gov. Pat Quinn signed the Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Regulatory Act (IHFRA) into law in June 2013. It was a chance to revive the New Albany Shale – which was once thought to be in irreversible decline after Illinois production peaked at 147.6 million barrels in 1940 – and revive Southern Illinois’ economy too.

Unfortunately, more than 400 days after that bill was signed, fracking remains on hold, thanks largely to the stall and manipulation tactics of the anti-fracking movement. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) has yet to complete IHFRA’s rule-writing process with a November deadline quickly approaching.

That delay is a major reason why the three counties where shale development would most likely occur –White (17th), Wayne (24th) and Hamilton (14th) counties – are all ranked on the Times’ 25 worst counties list. Surrounding counties that also have significant shale potential such as Marion (7th), Lawrence (10th) and Clay (12th) are even worse off in the Times’ estimation.

In other words, Illinois could be experiencing an energy boom but it continues to dither.  Meanwhile, shale development is responsible for thriving economies in states like North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Texas.

An Associated Press report earlier this month trumpeted the fact that consumer spending has “soared” in states with oil and gas drilling booms. Consumer spending jumped 28 percent in North Dakota between 2009 and 2012. It’s up 16 percent in Oklahoma and 12.2 percent in Ohio – the state most comparable to Illinois in terms of population and geological factors.

And there is good reason why people in these states have more money to spend. According to another Associated Press report the top five states in terms of job creation and income growth since the end of the Great Recession (North Dakota, Texas, Utah, Colorado, and Oklahoma) are all states enjoying shale booms.

North Dakota has seen its non-farm payroll increase an incredible 27.6 percent since December 2007, adding more than 100,000 jobs. Texas has added more than a million jobs and seen its non-farm payroll increase 9.5 percent. The Lone Star State recently surpassed 300,000 jobs in the oil and gas sector, adding 20,000 since July 2013.

The Bureau of Labor Statistic reported that development of the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania has created more than 15,000 direct jobs, a 259 percent increase since 2007.

A report from IHS CERA found that the unconventional oil and gas industry supports more than 2.1 million jobs nationwide. The report also says those jobs numbers are likely to increase:

“Combined with upstream activity, the entire unconventional oil and gas value chain currently supports more than 2.1 million jobs. Total jobs supported by this value chain will riseto more than 3.3 million in 2020 and reach nearly 3.9 million by 2025.”

As the Associated Press recently reported, these jobs have been a “lifeline” for union members and business owners alike:

“The shale became a lifesaver and a lifeline for a lot of working families,” said Dennis Martire, the mid-Atlantic regional manager for the Laborers’ International Union, or LIUNA, which represents workers in numerous construction trades.”

 “It has created more work for our business,” said Alex Paris, head of a Pittsburgh-area contracting firm. “There’s jobs here for the first time in many, many years. Legitimate, good-paying jobs.”

All of this makes a recent claim from Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment that fracking is economically “unsustainable” sound all-the-more silly.

There is no doubt fracking is working, to say the least, in many states. And there is little doubt that it would work in Southern Illinois too if the region were just allowed to tap its resources.

Even Gov. Quinn agrees. As the Belleville News-Democrat reported, Governor Quinn said that the IHFRA and subsequent shale development would “unlock the potential for thousands of jobs in Southern Illinois and ensure that our environment is protected.”

Woolsey Energy Cooperation’s investment in the region is testament to that. Woolsey has already spent $100 million in the Illinois basin based on its belief that there is great potential here.  As founder and owner Wayne Woosley explained,

“This is a source rock that has produced a tremendous amount of oil,” Woolsey said of the New Albany Shale during a interview with WGGH-AM 1150 in Marion. “Why would it be different than the Bakken (Shale in North Dakota) and Woodford (Shale in Oklahoma)?

“It is largely responsible for 4.3 billion barrels (of total oil production) in the Illinois Basin and no telling how much natural gas.”

But the state remains in a self-chosen malaise and counties that should be spearheading a shale boom are stalled in chronic economic funks, even though it’s overwhelmingly clear shale development could transform them in positive ways.

That prospect is what keeps folks like Woolsey from being overwhelmed with the state’s equally overwhelming lack of urgency.

“All I can say at this point, with all of our data and all of our accumulations is that it’s looking very encouraging,” Woolsey said. “That’s what’s keeping me going.”

Hopefully other drilling companies are keeping the faith. But with their leases nearing expiration and other opportunities presenting themselves in fracking-friendly states, it wouldn’t be wise to count on it.

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