As energy companies snap up leasing rights in Wayne County, some residents are optimistic, but environmentalists are worried
BMWs, Lincolns and other cars with Louisiana, Texas and Colorado license plates fill so many parking spaces around the Wayne County Courthouse that it’s tough for residents to find spots for their pickups.
Two blocks west, lunchtime business at Jemini Coffee House nearly doubles on some days with new customers who are a little secretive.
And fresh phrases are creeping into the local vernacular — vocabulary such as “lease hound” and “modern-day Clampetts,” a reference to the hit 1960s TV comedy “The Beverly Hillbillies,” about a backwoods family that strikes oil.
Wayne County, a rural locale about 270 miles south of Chicago, is experiencing a land rush thanks to a controversial effort to tap into hard-to-reach oil and gas deposits.
A relatively new twist on a 65-year-old technology, horizontal hydraulic fracturing may enable energy companies to hit pay dirt in southern Illinois. And representatives of those companies — many from the big oil states — are descending on the region, digging through land records at courthouses, then offering leases to farmers and other owners of mineral rights.
As much as $100 million has been spent on leasing rights in the region, according to one industry representative. Wayne County, population 17,000, is the state’s hot spot. At least six companies are there acquiring leases.
Amid the excitement and mystery, however, is a measure of anxiety. A regional group is scrambling to muster opposition as state lawmakers rush to stitch together regulations. Looming over Wayne and several other southern Illinois counties is a national debate that, at the extremes, pits the promise of energy independence and economic gain against the specter of environmental catastrophe.