FAIRFIELD, Ill. — While agriculture is the major industry in Wayne County, natural resources far beneath the soil also get a lot of attention.

It is among the top 10 oil-producing counties in Illinois, yielding more than a half-million barrels a year, according to the Illinois Oil and Gas Association. And where oil is, natural gas is not far behind.

That puts the county at the forefront of the recent enthusiasm over hydraulic fracturing, a process in which oil and natural gas is extracted through the injection of water and chemicals deep into the ground.

While fracturing has been performed for decades, the method of horizontal drilling — in which one well is created and minerals are extracted over a long run — is relatively new.

Tens of millions of dollars have been invested by energy companies on mineral leases in Wayne and surrounding counties, most of that on farmland. One company alone has purportedly spent more than $50 million.

The first test well in Illinois was drilled on a Wayne County farm.

In response to the interest in “fracking,” as it is called, Illinois last year passed landmark legislation regulating the industry. It has been widely hailed as the strictest yet fairest in the nation.

The problem, according to state Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg, is that the law’s rules have not been written, causing frustrating delays.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources is required by law to produce rules pertaining to a law within one year of the governor’s signature. That places the deadline for the fracking law in June.

“The delay is in the rulemaking process,” Phelps told AgriNews immediately following a meeting he and other lawmakers had with the head of the department last week. “People think they’re dragging their feet. You’ve got to have the rules done before you can start fracking of any kind.”

Fracking could rejuvenate the anemic southern Illinois economy as it has done in the Northern Plains, Phelps believes.

“We see what it did in North Dakota,” he said. “Southern Illinois always has high unemployment. I don’t think this is a boat we can miss. With the amount of revenue it’s going to generate when these companies come in, and the number of jobs it will bring, it’s a game-changer for our area.

“This is the safest bill in the country. That’s why, when it was voted on, every group at the table was in favor of it, even environmental groups.”

Many of the mineral leases obtained by energy companies are nearing expiration, something that concerns Phelps.

“The problem is, the longer we wait, the more these companies are leaving Illinois and setting up shop in other states,” he said. “We’ve had some companies ready to spend millions and millions of dollars in southern Illinois, but they’re tired of waiting.

“There was one company supposedly that would spend $1 billion — with a B — in southern Illinois. Think how many jobs that would create. It’s just huge. I know there’s a lot of opposition. But everybody at the table was in favor of this bill. This was agreed to.”

Phelps doesn’t believe opposition to fracking is entirely to blame for the delay. Though IDNR was forced to address concerns put forth by numerous individuals and groups during the public comment period, Phelps believes the bigger problem has been a short-staffed department.

“They told us today they have hired more staff for this process,” he said. “We’re going to take them at their word.”