By Lizzie Johnson

A southwestern Illinois community college has received the go-ahead to create a petroleum drilling technology, or fracking, program.

Lincoln Trail College in Robinson, Ill., will enroll its first students this fall. The college petitioned the state for the degree and received approval this month.

"We are very rich in oil in this part of the state," Lincoln Trail College President Kathryn Harris said last week. "The degree will focus on new ways and technologies to extract oil. We want to be ready when the oil boom comes to southern Illinois."

It has been two months since Illinois approved and enacted rules for high-volume oil and gas drilling. Denver-based Strata-X Energy is the only company that has registered with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, but it has not formally applied to begin fracking.

Fracking will be an emphasis in the two-year associate degree program.

The process involves using technology to drill into shale rock and retrieve oil or gas using a high-pressure mixture of water and chemicals.

The current drop in oil prices has led to layoffs in some regions of the country, and Harris said low prices could affect the job market.

"I prefer we be dependent on our own oil over foreign oil," she said. "It's hard to make money when the price has dropped."

Despite the plunge in prices, the extraction field is expected to grow domestically, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security. It predicts a 23.2 percent increase for oil and gas roustabouts, or oil rig personnel, a 23.6 percent increase for drill operators and a 24.1 percent increase for derrick operators through 2022.

"There's a huge need for petroleum workers, and we can't fill them fast enough," said Robert Conn, former dean of instruction at Lincoln Trail College and current dean of instruction at Wabash Valley College in Mount Carmel, Ill. "The price in oil fluctuates so much. Anything can happen, that's the interesting thing. The economy will push fracking here. This is just a little hiccup to try to slow down U.S. production."

Dr. Bill Eustes, an associate professor at the Colorado School of Mines, said Tuesday that job growth is likely to increase as older professionals retire. Eustes teaches subjects related to petroleum engineering.

"When you look at the 1980s, when the market collapsed, a lot of people were laid off and not many companies were hiring," Eustes said. "That left a gap between us older folks and younger people. We call it the big crew change. A lot of us are retiring. Who is going to take our place?" Harris said Lincoln Trail College had a petroleum drilling technology program about 35 years ago when the first big oil boom hit. The original program slowly dissolved after qualified graduates saturated the market and companies stopped hiring.

"We couldn't get our graduates jobs," Harris said. "The program failed. When we saw there was a possibility of an oil boom coming to southern Illinois, we wanted to bring our program back."

A study by the American Petroleum Institute found that the oil and gas industry has created 263,700 jobs in Illinois as of 2012. The industry contributes $33.3 billion to Illinois' economy, or about 5 percent of the total economy, each year.

The new program will focus on technological advancements. Students will take 44 credit hours to earn the degree. Harris said that college officials used a community college in Ohio as a template for program curriculum.

"We are hoping to have a full class of 20," Harris said. "I am very excited. We are hoping students will like and choose this option. We wanted our students to have more freedom to choose what they can go into."

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