Private oil and gas drilling on the Allegheny National Forest may resume, ruled a federal judge Tuesday, saying the U.S. Forest Service was wrong to institute a ban and insist an environmental impact statement be completed before drilling could continue.
U.S. District Judge Sean McLaughlin issued a 53-page memorandum opinion and order which prohibits the Forest Service from requiring an environmental assessment before drillers can access their mineral rights below the service in the ANF; ends the drilling ban; reinstates the previous rules; dismisses the actions brought by Warren County and the Allegheny Forest Alliance; and prohibits further implementation of a settlement agreement with several environmental groups.
The suit is Minard Run Oil Co., Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Association, Allegheny Forest Alliance and Warren County versus the U.S. Forest Service and numerous of its officers.
Steve Rhoads, president of the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Association, said, "What the judge did effectively is enjoined the Forest Service from continuing to prohibit the development of private oil and gas rights in the boundaries of the ANF."
Earlier this year, the Forest Service had changed its longstanding practices in dealing with owners of private mineral rights after an April settlement agreement in a suit brought by environmental groups Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, Sierra Club and Allegheny Defense Project.
Part of the longstanding practice of the Forest Service was that the federal agency would receive a proposal from a driller, review it under previously established case law, and issue a Notice to Proceed within 60 days.
Since that settlement agreement, the Forest Service effectively stopped additional drilling on the National Forest, allowing a certain number of wells that had been in the approval process to proceed and requiring producers of new wells to complete an environmental impact assessment, under the National Environmental Policy Act, prior to drilling.
Rhoads said the judge ruled on Tuesday that NEPA didn't apply. "The Forest Service's assertion that NEPA pertains to their activities of Notices to Proceed is wrong. They're not allowed. They made an error by assuming the authority to rule under NEPA."
Since the settlement agreement was made, the Forest Service has been conducting a forestwide environmental impact statement. Rhoads said the environmental impact statement has been halted as well.
"They are basically enjoined from proceeding further with the environmental impact statement," Rhoads said.
"You cannot prohibit drillers because NEPA is no longer valid," Rhoads said. "The Forest Service is hereby told to start moving forward under the old rules."
"We're very, very grateful to the judge for this ruling," he said. "It's clear that he understands the serious impact the Forest Service's actions have had over the past year. It's been very damaging to our families and very damaging to local economies. We're glad the judge understands that.
"We just want to get back to work," Rhoads said.
Fred Fesenmyer, chairman of POGAM and owner of Minard Run Oil -- the company behind the case -- echoed Rhoads' statements.
"With this decision, it will certainly allow us all to go back to work to do what we do best," he said. "After almost a year of not being able to conduct new drilling on the forest, this is welcome news. It may be too late for some, but perhaps it will allow others to hire back or contract with other people.
"The National Forest still owns the surface, but they cannot deny us access to our minerals without reasonable cause. They still have that right to do what is legally proper.
"We are scrutinized all the time for the way we conduct our business," Fesenmyer said, explaining the industry is watched by the state Department of Environmental Protection. "We need to be good custodians of the surface."
While McLaughlin's order will allow the oil and gas producers to get back to work, Rhoads said the injunctions don't necessarily mean the fight is over.
"What's next? That remains to be seen," Rhoads said. "You'll have to talk to the Forest Service about that. The injunction merely sets the stage for it to move forward in court. What happens next is up to the Forest Service."
Rhoads said that just getting a judge to issue a preliminary injunction against a federal government policy is a "very high bar to hurdle. We've surmounted the bar. We did it. Yahoo!"
U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., was also vocal in his appreciation at McLaughlin's decision.
"I've had confidence all along in the state's ability to take care of the environment in the Allegheny National Forest -- confidence in the local industry and the citizens of the four-county area, who have been exceptional stewards of the environment for decades," Thompson said. "The local stakeholders have taken care of the forest for 86 years with the state Department of Environmental Protection providing some of the best enforcement in the nation.
"This also is a victory for the hard-working people of northwest and northcentral Pennsylvania, who anxiously have been waiting for the opportunity to go back to work in the forest they love, and where they have supported their families for several generations."
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