Drillers Sue US Govt over Allegheny National Forest Delays

According to a lawsuit filed on Monday, the U.S. government is obstructing legitimate and legal gas drilling in the Allegheny National Forest (ANF) in northwestern PA. A court in Eire, PA has been asked to find them in contempt and force them to allow drilling to proceed on a timely basis.

A brief background on the ANF and why the lawsuit was filed:

In 1923 the land that is now the Allegheny National Forest was purchased by the federal government, but the federal government did not buy the subsurface or mineral rights of the land because of financial issues. Private citizens currently own ninety-three percent of the subsurface land in the forest. Since the spike in oil prices around 2000, oil companies that own mineral rights have placed more drilling equipment in the forest.

During an out of court settlement in April 2009, the United States Forest Service decided that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) will govern all oil and gas drilling in the forest. NEPA would make any oil or gas drilling in the forest subject to public judgment and place heavy requirements and restrictions on drilling. On June 1, 2009, the Minard Run Oil Co., Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Association, Allegheny Forest Alliance and Warren County Government sued the United States District Court in Erie, Pennsylvania over the U.S. Forest Service’s use of NEPA and won a preliminary injunction, which allows drilling to proceed outside of the heavy restrictions called for by NEPA. But the U.S. Forest Service is still dragging its feet, intentionally, and Minard et al are tired of it.

A U.S. District Court judge in Erie was asked Monday to determine whether the U.S. government should be ruled in contempt of court.

The plaintiffs, representing the oil and gas industry, argued that the U.S. Forest Service isn’t living up to a preliminary injunction handed down two years ago by District Court Judge Sean McLaughlin.

The main points of contention are how long it takes for the Forest Service to issue notices to proceed for drilling proposals on the Allegheny National Forest (ANF) and whether the Forest Service is denying developers access to groundwater for hydraulic fracturing operations.

The injunction was an important ruling for the industry, according to lead attorney Timothy McCrum. "The court has provided significant relief to the oil and gas industry," he said. "Small businesses have seen their businesses survive" because of it.

However, "we have before us an agency that has been dragging its feet," he said in his opening statements.

According to McLaughlin’s injunction ruling, the Forest Service was expected to return to practices set in place by a previous lawsuit won by Minard Run in 1980. Minard Run Oil and the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association (PIOGA) are the plaintiffs in the current case.

Under what the court referred to as Minard Run I, the Forest Service had 60 days from the submission of a drilling proposal to work with the developers to mitigate impacts to the surface of the forest. Over a vast majority of the forest, the government owns only the surface rights. The mineral rights are held by private owners in about 93 percent of the forest.

According to Pennsylvania General Energy President and CEO Douglas Kuntz, one of two witnessed called by the plaintiffs on Monday, "it’s taking around six months to get a notice to proceed."

That is longer than the average in 2010, he said, and far beyond the expectations of the developers.*

*Warren Times Observer (Nov 15, 2011) – ANF at center of court hearing