VIENNA, Ill. ( — This is the Illinois that many people never see — the sparsely populated southern tip where flat farmland gives way to rolling hills, rocky outcrops, thick forests and cypress swamps.
Blacktopped county roads wend through no-stoplight towns. Locals speak in soft drawls and talk of generations who've lived on the same land or in the same villages. The remote and rugged Shawnee National Forest attracts hikers, campers and horseback riders, and offers a stark contrast to the rest of a state that largely has been plowed, paved or suburbanized.
But many here are beginning to brace for change as the Illinois Legislature considers regulations that could set off a rush among energy companies to drill deep in the southern Illinois bedrock for oil and natural gas. The crews would be using a process known as high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," that has transformed the landscape in places like North Dakota and Pennsylvania.
After drilling intensively in many states in the last few years, the industry is now preparing to push into new territory, hoping to tap deposits long considered out of reach. Residents here — and states like New York and California that also are part of this next frontier — have heard the angry clamor over fracking elsewhere, but most have little experience with the oil industry.
Already, drillers have leased hundreds of thousands of acres throughout southern Illinois, including in scenic Johnson and Pope counties, which hasn't seen conventional drilling and where people aren't sure what to expect if a fracking rush becomes a reality.