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updated: 3/7/2013 6:46 PM

Judge clears way for drilling in Shawnee forest

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Associated Press

CHAMPAIGN -- 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.

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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.

Environmentalists behind the lawsuit that led to the injunction aren't sure what steps they'll now take. One said Tuesday that he doesn't expect Gilbert's decision will mean radical changes in the 280,000-acre national forest, which stretches from the Mississippi River in the west to the Ohio River between Illinois and Kentucky in the east.

But he hopes that public pressure can persuade the Forest Service to reconsider its 2006 management plan to further restrict oil and gas exploration and logging.

"I'm hoping that we could convince enough people in the public, enough politicians and public officials, even as far as (President Barack Obama), since this is his home state," said Mark Donham, one of the leaders of the Regional Association of Concerned Environmentalists. "But we've shown now the last couple of decades we can put together a pretty good lawsuit."

Lifting the injunction probably means far less for logging than potential oil and gas exploration, Blume-Weaver. Forest restrictions mean that most logging is still likely to be mostly limited to cutting timber as part of forest management and restoration projects, he said.

Donham is less certain about what will happen with hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking. The practice relies on high-pressure blasts of water and chemicals to fracture rock and release oil and gas trapped inside. While the petroleum industry says it's safe, environmentalists say it causes water and air pollution and creates other problems.

Fracking isn't addressed in the 2006 management plan because it wasn't an issue in Illinois at the time, Blume-Weaver said.

Now, Illinois lawmakers are considering draft regulations to allow fracking, and the petroleum industry is eager to explore the New Albany Shale formation. A small piece of the eastern end of the national forest sits over the formation.

"It's very possible (it could become an issue in the national forest)," he said, adding that companies are already approaching private landowners in the areas about leases.

A call to the Illinois Oil & Gas Association was not returned.

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