Monday, March 18, 2013

Fracking Cuts Unemployment to 0.7 Percent

Oil gusher at Robinson,
Illinois, in 1907.
The Chicago Tribune had a front page feature story Sunday about the oil boom in North Dakota which mentioned, fairly high up in the story, the potential in Southern Illinois.

There's been a lot of debate, most of it one-sided and hysterical, about the negative impacts of fracking, usually from people who don't realize our state's oil industry has been using the technique since the 1950s.

What's new is the combination of fracking, far deeper drilling as well as the development of horizontal drilling. I did a series of articles last year for The Daily Register in Harrisburg about the potential.

Those opposed to it certainly haven't swayed me. It would be better if some of their leading spokespeople weren't opposed to our petroleum-based civilization in the first place. I get it. You don't like oil. Go back to your cave. There aren't any real alternatives except for coal and natural gas which for the former you like even less.

My favorite complaint is that it would hurt tourism. In actuality, only to the extent that it would drive up room rates and eliminate vacancies. Neither of those, mind you, would bother hotel operators.

But the best reason to support a resurgence in our oil industry is the jobs that come with it. There's a story in today's paper about Illinois fighting with Iowa over a $1.2 billion new anhydrous ammonia plant.

That's a lot of construction jobs but only 150 permanent jobs when it's built. They're talking 50,000 jobs if downstate Illinois starts to do its best imitation of North Dakota.

I knew it was serious last spring when U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, came to Harrisburg for a photo op following the Leap Day Tornado. A week earlier he had targeted the coal industry at a global warming news conference in Chicago.

I wanted to ask him about his comments. To his credit he didn't change them even though he was in the heart of coal country. He surprised me when he brought up oil and natural gas as replacements for the mining jobs.

I had been hearing about the possibilities of fracking coming to Illinois and a potential oil boom. I asked, "how big?" He wouldn't quantify an answer, but smiled, and made reference to North Dakota. It was around that time that North Dakota passed Alaska as the county's second largest oil-producing state.

And with that reference it's time to get back to Sunday's focus story.

Appropriately, the Trib's big story starts with a little one, how Andy Turco went from high school dropout in a series of dead-end jobs to a solid blue collar career. All he had to do was leave Chicago for the northern plains.
Then [Turco] talked to a buddy working here, in a barren corner of North Dakota, where an ugly-sounding word — fracking — has driven oil from the ground and pushed unemployment down to 0.7 percent. That's right: seven-tenths of one percent.

Turco sold his car, hopped in a van and drove west.

Today, he's earning nearly six figures working about 90 hours a week on a drilling rig, one of many Chicago-area transplants who have joined thousands in a remote region experiencing an oil boom while much of the country tries to shake off a recession hangover.

"It is the best thing I ever did; no doubt about it," said Turco, 24, who arrived in Williston in October 2011. "I'm finally living an adult lifestyle, instead of a teenage dropout lifestyle."

And it's all thanks to fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, a relatively new and controversial drilling technology in which highly pressurized water, sand and other substances are driven into oil-rich shale thousands of feet deep, creating cracks that release the oil deposits and send them up the well.

Read more about the developments here.

The Illinois General Assembly will be taking up state Rep. John Bradley's bill to regulate fracking. It will be the toughest regulatory oversight in the country. It's backed by both industry and the still-in-the-mainstream environmental groups.