Can the Shawnee National Forest survive regulated fracking?

Can the Shawnee National Forest survive regulated fracking?

After watching the state house overwhelmingly vote for a bill that will launch the fracking rush in Illinois, I spotted the cover of Illinois Times' latest issue. "A Guide to the Shawnee National Forest."

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Go soon.

When I first heard someone claim that fracking would destroy the Shawnee, I scoffed. It can't be worse than coal mining, right? There are protections in national forests, and drilling has gone on in the region for years.

I didn't understand the massive scale of fracking proposed for downstate Illinois, and how much more damage fracking installations do than the small wells Illinois is used to seeing. Even fracking that complies with regulations supported by Governor Pat Quinn, Attorney General Lisa Madigan and several accommodating environmental groups can result in the destruction of the crown jewel of Illinois.

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Fracking is allowed in national forests. Here's what that looks like in Allegheny National Forest, where drilling pads and roads are getting bigger and further fragmenting natural areas. Sites like this could be repeated hundreds or thousands of times all over the Shawnee, even if companies comply with state regulation.

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Five rural southern Illinois counties asked for a moratorium on fracking, but the regulatory bill takes away their authority to ban the practice. Representative John Bradley said in debate that cities will be able to restrict fracking, but that defense is a cruel joke when discussing rural counties with large unincorporated areas.

The passage of the fracking bill left many worried and crying last night. Those tears were made bitter by hearing legislators avoid addressing weaknesses in the proposed regulations by repeatedly invoking the names of environmental allies supporting the bill.

But, there's more to be done. As Sandra Steingraber said to a member of the Illinois Attorney General's staff, if the fracking bill passes the movement will "use what's happening here in Illinois as a focal point in our work. We would plan to bring freedom rider buses here, civil disobedience is part of our strategies and tactics, because at the end of the day the regulations can't make fracking safe."

People are aware of Illinois' notoriously weak oversight of extraction industries. And the passage of the regulatory bill will make it more difficult to save the Shawnee. But, there's hope of getting more protection for national forests through federal action and grassroots efforts by local activists. That fight will continue and it can be won despite today's setback.

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