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Southern Illinois residents rally, wait for fracking

Wayne Woolsey, an oilman since 1958, says he has core samples pulled from deep below the shale rock here that “look awful promising,” comparable to what has been found elsewhere in the country where fracking has brought plentiful jobs and enriched land owners and energy companies.

So, Woolsey said, he was stunned when a Twitter account with his company’s name and his portrait surfaced with links to complaints about fracking along with a letter with his signature that informed more than 200 property owners in another county that he was terminating leases on land where he planned to drill.

“We cannot in good conscience subject you and your community to the dangers posed by hydraulic fracturing,” the letter said. “The benefits of our contractual agreement would be egregiously one-sided, since we would be exposing you and your community to immeasurable dangers. Unconscionable contracts carry no legal force and therefore must be dissolved.”

In response, the 83-year-old president of Woolsey Energy Corp. quickly contacted the landowners to let them know the letter, which used his company’s letterhead, and the tweets were fakes. Woolsey, who has leases covering 50,000 acres in Wayne County, clearly was not amused.

Neither was the crowd of 600 people who gathered last week in a church here, about 100 miles east of St. Louis, to find out what was taking the state so long to get fracking started. No one here has seen Woolsey’s core samples. But they say they trust Woolsey because he meets regularly with local government officials — in contrast with other energy firms that have remained distant and silent.

“Our lifestyle is being threatened by environmental activists,” Woolsey told the crowd, leaning heavily on his cane and looking diminutive in an oversize pinstriped suit.

A dozen landowners here have vented their frustration with the state’s inability to approve rules governing fracking by filing suit against Illinois Department of Natural Resources Director Marc Miller and Gov. Pat Quinn in Wayne County Circuit Court. They contend the state’s delay in issuing fracking permits is akin to an illegal land grab, a legal argument based on the idea that regulation of a property’s use has gone “too far,” depriving the owner of value or utility.

Their lawyer expects more lawsuits to be filed in other southern Illinois counties where land has been leased in anticipation of fracking.

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While a state fracking law was passed in May 2013 and signed by Quinn on June 17, 2013, proposed rules that would regulate fracking now sit with a little known 12-member state body called the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules. It has until Nov. 15 to approve the regulations or the rule-making process starts anew.

When Woolsey asked the crowd whether any environmental activists were present, the room went silent. At the end of the evening, one woman elbowed her way to the back of the church and quietly let reporters know how to contact her before slipping into the night.

“We aren’t trying to deny people jobs, per se,” said Sabrina Hardenbergh, an environmentalist from Carbondale who is critical of southern Illinois decision-makers for focusing on fossil fuels “to the detriment of renewable energy development and our health and environmental preservation.” She said she’d like to see jobs created that “could be renewable energy jobs, or ‘greener’ jobs that would work better with our local organic agriculture, vineyards, outdoor tourism, and such.”

But if the turnout at the church was any indication, Wayne County is fracking country. Fracking is the biggest and most exciting thing people here have talked about since the early 1920s, when the local Shelton Brothers Gang, famous as bootleggers and robbers, fought it out with the Birger Gang for control of the territory.

“Look at this room. It’s not easy on a Tuesday night — we didn’t even feed them — to get this many people in a room,” said Brad Richards, vice president of the Illinois Oil and Gas Association and who has acted as chief spokesman for the energy companies as the state has haggled over fracking.

“This is the least represented part of the state in this whole debate,” Richards said. “The least represented part of the state is the place where it’s (fracking is) going to happen. And that’s pathetic.”

Some residents say they don’t understand why fracking, a method for stimulating oil and natural gas production by breaking apart rocks deep underground with high volumes of fluid laced with sand and chemicals, is so misunderstood. Environmentalists call fracking dangerous and say it threatens to pollute the air and water.

“We’re not afraid of fracking here,” said Diane Robinson, a certified public accountant. She said smaller vertical oil wells have pockmarked the area for years. Most farmers, she said, just grow crops around the rigs.

But a modern fracked well would produce more than 100 times the amount of oil as the small wells that dot the countryside.

“People who know nothing about what we’re about are going to tell us we can’t do this?” Robinson said.

Robinson, who said she represents the third generation of her family in the oil industry, said fracking would dramatically help Wayne County and southern Illinois.

“We’re in desperate need of economic development,” she said. About 13 percent of the population here is below the poverty line and the median annual income two years ago was about $26,000.

Until the rules are passed, the Department of Natural Resources has said it will not issue fracking permits — unless ordered by a court.

The state agency has maintained that its final draft rule regulations were delayed because it had to sort through more than 30,000 comments filed in response to the initial proposed regulations. Concerns were raised about everything from chemicals used in fracking to the handling of wastewater and the processes for public review of permits.

Ron Osman, a southern Illinois attorney, said he doesn’t buy that explanation. During the same period, he said, the state has dealt with same-sex marriage, medical marijuana and other issues.

“In those 500 days you can marry anybody that you want to, smoke marijuana if you have a medical condition, carry a gun and go to the video parlor. But they can’t seem to pass the (rules) that would put tens of thousands of people to work and put millions of dollars in state coffers and millions of dollars in people’s pockets,” Osman said.

Osman said he asked his law clerk to comb through the comments, which were posted on a public website. What he found, Osman said, were not 30,000 comments, but many repeated comments, sometimes coupled with cut-and-paste instructions.

“The comment procedure was taken over by a small core of well-organized entities and individuals,” Osman said. “We found instances where there were seven to 10 duplicates, where the same commenter would send the same comment seven to 10 times.”

A spokesman at the Department of Natural Resources said the agency took “very seriously the rule-making responsibility set forth by the Illinois General Assembly, and we respect the right of citizens to participate in their government.” In a statement, the spokesman said the agency took the time to conduct “a thoughtful and thorough review of the comments received, and delivered a second draft of the rules on Aug. 29 that provided strong environmental protections within a fair regulatory framework.”

Meanwhile, residents say they need jobs.

“If you’re not a farmer, a nurse or a doctor or work at Wal-Mart, there’s not a lot to do here,” said Amy Pollard, one of the landowners suing state officials.

Pollard’s title-searching company in Fairfield is surrounded by boarded-up businesses. Several grocery stores have left town. A factory in town has moved more jobs overseas. The Wagon Wheel Diner closed this month.

“There’s only one place to eat downtown if you have business here. I’m really sick of pizza,” said Gerald Quindry, who moved back to Fairfield with his environmental and civil engineering firm after the fracking law passed because he thought his business would boom.

So many homes are vacant in Fairfield, a town of slightly more than 5,000 residents, that at one point Mayor Chuck Griswold led a drive to demolish them.

Passage of the fracking law in 2013 gave Fairfield renewed hope. People started buying up houses in anticipation that an oil boom would allow them to rent out the properties to itinerant oilmen at high rates.

Landowners who’d received $100 to $400 an acre to lease land to oil and natural gas developers also started spending money, Pollard said, on cars, trucks, grain bins, farm equipment, vacations and kitchen remodeling. “But now the oil companies are leaving,” she said.

Woolsey Energy’s plans to build a $2.5 million headquarters building in Fairfield are on hold. Woolsey said he wants to wait to make sure it’s worth the investment.

While oil prices are falling, partly as a result of fracking elsewhere in the United States, Fairfield is optimistically building an entrance to Woolsey’s headquarters.

Across the street is a liquor store owned by Gabe McGaha. McGaha says if the headquarters opens and fracking gets started his business stands to grow exponentially.

Leaning back in his chair at his day job at LeMond’s Chrysler Center, McGaha was blunt, “They’ll buy cars and they’ll buy beer,” he said. He broke into a toothy grin. “I mean, they’re oil-field workers.”