By JIM SUHR
ST. LOUIS (AP) â¿¿ 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.
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 â¿¿ perhaps a sixth of the state â¿¿ 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.