Mt. Vernon Register-News

State News

March 8, 2013

Judge clears way for drilling in Shawnee forest


CHAMPAIGN (AP) — A federal judge has lifted a 17-year-old order blocking oil and gas drilling and commercial logging in southern Illinois' Shawnee National Forest.

The Forest Service doesn't anticipate an immediate push to increase logging in the forest, but the agency says several proposals for oil and gas exploration could move forward now that U.S. District Judge J. Phil Gilbert has lifted the injunction he put in place in 1996.

And as the state of Illinois considers a plan to allow hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to recover oil and natural gas in the state, U.S. Forest Service officials could also for the first time be forced to consider the potential effects of the controversial technique on the southern Illinois forest. A small piece of it lies over the geologic formation that the petroleum industry hopes to begin exploring for natural gas.

In his injunction, Gilbert agreed with environmentalists who'd sued to block commercial logging and oil and gas exploration because they didn't believe the Forest Service's 1992 management plan adequately protected natural resources.

On Tuesday, he agreed with the Forest Service that the current management plan, written in 2006, addressed those concerns.

"The goals of the 1996 injunction have been achieved — the inadequately supported parts of the 1992 Forest Plan are not being implemented," the judge wrote.

While nothing will immediately change, "Right now we have a few expressions of interest in oil-and-gas leasing that have been waiting to see what happens with the injunction," said Richard Blume-Weaver, a planning and resources staff officer at the National Forest.

Those proposals would have to be reviewed under the National Environmental Policy Act, a process intended to prevent environmental damage on federal lands that can take a year or so, he said. Ultimate approval would then rest with the federal Bureau of Land Management.

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