ST. LOUIS -- Blessed with natural resources but never enough jobs, southern Illinois counties have begun sampling the fruits of a land rush linked to a debated drilling practice that speculators believe can tap elusive oil and natural gas thousands of feet underground.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees have flowed into county coffers from a stream of "land men," often out-of-staters who converged in recent years to scour title records for prime parcels for exploration. County clerks funneled much of that windfall into digitizing bulky, age-yellowed record books that took a toll from all the frenzied searches.
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A coffee shop owner credits the visitors with saving her business in Wayne County's tiny Fairfield. The county's finance board leader says he's seen more locals sporting new vehicles and spending more on items at auctions, thanks to land deals tied to the drilling push.
Locals believe the best is yet to come. But, as lawmakers in Springfield argue about potentially ground-breaking regulations that would facilitate the so-called practice of "fracking," it's difficult to determine how much of the region stands to benefit. Industry officials say at least 17 counties -- perhaps a sixth of the state -- could see some activity, and that landowners already have leased perhaps half a million acres.
"Once they hit a well, everybody and their dog will be in here drilling," said Steve Ehrhart, head of the finance committee in Wayne County, which has been one of the epicenters of the land speculation.
For many in the region, where oil rigs dot the landscape and coal mines long have been king, there's broad hope of bigger financial gains from a drilling process they hope sweeps in soon, using high-pressure mixtures of water, sand or gravel and chemicals to crack rock formations and release trapped oil and natural gas.
Gov. Pat Quinn and industry groups say the new drilling could create as many as 40,000 jobs, by some estimates. Many counties in this often-struggling, largely rural region say could use the jobs they're convinced would come from the drilling itself, the building of fences and roads, and the related trucking.
For now, fracking is waiting on state lawmakers, who will resume weighing how to regulate it when they return to Springfield next week. Industry groups and some environmental groups have crafted a compromise that would implement some of the toughest regulations in the country, but other environmentalists are demanding a moratorium until the impact can be further studied.
Of special intrigue is the region's New Albany Shale, a formation roughly 5,000 feet below the surface. While the industry says the formation underlies some two-thirds of the state, land is being leased in only about 17 southern counties because the shale likely will yield significant natural resources only in the areas where it's deepest underground.
Brad Richards, the Illinois Oil and Gas Association's executive vice president, called the estimate of a half-million acres leased for future drilling conservative. Energy companies must file their leases with the counties, but many may be waiting for competitive reasons. Because they're not kept in one central location for the state -- along with the fact that leases are filed manually rather than electronically -- it's difficult to easily discern how much acreage is under lease.
Hamilton, Wayne and White counties, where oil and gas drilling has taken place for decades, are among the hottest targets for prospectors, though leases also are being acquired in two counties -- Johnson and Pope -- where there never has been drilling, Richards said.
It's been good for the bottom line of Hamilton County, where clerk and recorder Mary Anne Hopfinger says her office has reaped some $450,000 the past two years just in copying and other fees from visiting land title researchers. During that stretch, she said, more than 1,600 oil and gas leases have been logged there, 1,000 since January 2012.
"When all this activity first started, it was overwhelming to say the least," she said, noting three to four dozen people at a time once sought access land records she's now digitizing.
It's a similar story in Wayne County, where the governing board uniformly has endorsed fracking. Clerk Glenda Young estimates her office has collected $200,000 in fees since 2011, plowing a chunk of that money into a soon-to-be-completed push to put her records online.
"That wouldn't have happened had it not been for the rush" from which more than 2,000 land leases have been recorded since January 2010, she said.
In both settings, the rush has tapered a bit, leaving elected officials in the counties eager for what they hope is the next wave of fracking prosperity.
Now, "we're waiting on the oil boom," said Gary Sloan, Wayne County's board chairman. "It would change the county, and it'd never the same -- but in a positive way. Bring it on, and the sooner the better."
Near the county's courthouse in 5,400-resident Fairfield, Julie McGill credits the land rush with saving her Jemini Coffee House. After the economy tanked five years ago, she said, "we thought about selling but decided to hang on a little longer." In came the land men, whose patronage of McGill's shop helped her pay off the business' 10-year bank note.
"They came at the right time, by the grace of God," she said.