A high-volume horizontal fracturing drilling site situated on a farm in Wayne County is one of the first in Illinois. Oil companies are hopeful that the region could become a rich source of oil and natural gas.
A high-volume horizontal fracturing drilling site situated on a farm in Wayne County is one of the first in Illinois. Oil companies are hopeful that the region could become a rich source of oil and natural gas.
GEFF, Ill. — An Oklahoma company is set to begin drilling at a site that could be the first major horizontal hydraulic fracturing operation in Illinois.

SM Energy of Tulsa has completed construction of an exploratory well on a farm in Wayne County in southern Illinois. It could be the start of an economic boom for the region if the well is successful.

Hydraulic fracturing — commonly referred to as “fracking” — is a process by which water and chemicals are injected at high pressure deep underground, fracturing the shale and forcing the release of oil and gas.

While vertical fracturing has been performed for decades, the newer process — involving horizontal drilling that covers a wider area underground — is relatively new and has not yet been done on a large scale in Illinois.

The drill site is on the farm of Walt Townsend. Townsend is one of a number of landowners in the region who have sold mineral leases to companies looking to cash in on the new technology that could be an economic boon to the area as it has been in other states such as North Dakota.

Agreeing to lease land to an oil company such as SM was important to Townsend.

“We got the lease with the company that we felt like would drill,” he said. “We didn’t want to sign up with a company that was going to flip, or sell, the leases. I think we made the right decision, because they’re drilling the first well.”

Larry Skelton, a drilling consultant and engineer who is the site manager, agreed that leasing to an energy company is preferable to doing business with those he refers to as “lease jockeys” who lock up acres in order to re-sell to the highest bidder.

“They keep peddling until it ends up with somebody,” he said. “Some leases are just one year. With a shorter lease, if they don’t come in and drill it, they have to renegotiate. If it’s a long lease, it could just sit there.”

At the Wayne County site, engineers will drill straight down about 5,000 feet and then at a horizontal slant another 3,000 feet.

A profitable venture could ramp up interest in fracking in Illinois. Already, an unknown number of landowners in the region have signed mineral leases.

Brad Richards, executive vice president of the Illinois Gas and Oil Association, noted that while there is no guarantee there will be an economic boon to the state, oil companies are betting heavily on the prospect.

“The possibility exists. But no one knows for sure because it is so early on,” he said. “There have been hundreds of millions of dollars spent leasing. One company has spent over $50 million on leases. These tend to be larger, fairly technically science-oriented companies. It’s what we think is a smart bet. But until somebody goes out there and established production, it’s very speculative.”

Some concerned residents and environmental activists have been active long before the drill site was in place. Efforts to place a moratorium on the process have been pushed.

But proponents of fracking claim there is no danger of contamination of groundwater because the underground pipes are encased in concrete.

“It can’t get through that,” Skelton said.

A comprehensive bill backed by both industry and environmental groups to regulate fracking recently passed the Illinois Legislature by a wide margin. As of press time, the bill was awaiting a signature by Gov. Pat Quinn.

The legislation is novel and addresses the concerns of groups on both sides of the issue, according to Richards.

“We agreed to the regulatory scheme because we felt like the alternative was a very real chance that we would end up with some type of moratorium,” he said. “There are some precedent-setting provisions in this. We have elements of this that no other state has contemplated.”

One example is that firms will be required to test groundwater in the drilling region both before and after fracture treatment.

“I don’t believe that has been mandated in any other state,” Richards said.