Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Southern Illinois, The Newest Fracking Frontier

Soon Illinois lawmakers will vote on a bill that would open its boundaries to fracking. The industry has set its eyes on the southern portion of the state and the New Albany Shale formation, providing Springfield and local governments with a seemingly all too perfect solution to its fiscal problems. The Land of Lincoln is currently $271 billion in the red, the southern portion of the state plagued by unemployment and ever dwindling populations. Fracking, as the oil and gas industry spins it, is a silver bullet that would bring jobs, development and capital to the region overnight.

Sounds great. Why are we wasting time? Let’s frack.

To begin, I find that promises of silver bullet solutions are usually more empty than fulfilled. Ultimately, society’s obsession with a single fix-all solution leads to two things: disappointment and more problems.

Look no further than the relationship—past and present--between big business and rural America. It’s less collegial collaboration and more subject to subjugator.

In the 1950’s eastern Kentucky and Appalachia were declared open for business as they ramped up their strip mining industry producing 150,000 jobs. It also resulted in the removal of mountaintops, the destruction of entire ecosystems due to pollution and the burial of headwater streams, in addition to an increased mortality rate due to cancer and kidney, lung and heart disease.

Yeah, but it brought economic growth to an otherwise struggling region. Not quite. Today the median income of a household in West Virginia coal country is around $28,000. The national average is just under $52,000. Sure, money was made. But not by the loyal subjects of Appalachia. The spoils went to the conqueror. In this case the coal companies and their shareholders.

Or we can look to present-day northeast Ohio; a region desperate for economic regeneration and one that has opened its doors to the fracking industry. Yes, farmers are being paid for mineral rights and jobs have been created by way of capital projects. Great, that’s the idea. It has also led to an increase in crime, water pollution due to illegal waste dumping and a decrease in farming production. Oh, and earthquakes. I doubt that was in the fine print. Once again, disappointment and more problems.

Chairman Larry Richards of Pope County, Illinois says it well, “We need jobs. But will they just bring their own people in, tear our county up and leave us with a mess?”

It’s a valid question. Is fracking an operation that will bring sustainable development and growth to the region? Will the citizens of southern Illinois be better off? How about twenty or thirty years from now?

Or, in the end, will our children inherit the problems of our latest silver bullet solution?

(image obtained via the creative commons on Flikr)