There are 9,000 working gas and oil wells in the Allegheny National Forest, and up to 2,000 more could start pumping this year, but six wells that Pennsylvania General Energy Co. will drill in the Salmon Creek watershed are unique.
They will be the only ones tapping into the Allegheny's limited, publicly owned oil and gas deposits.
Click here for project information and maps available on the Allegheny National Forest web site.
Concern about the Forest Service's inability to limit well drilling has heretofore focused on the privately owned mineral rights under much of the 513,000-acre forest, but the recent leasing of the publicly owned mineral rights has opened another front for environmentalists.
"The Forest Service often complains that it has little authority to restrict oil and gas development on the Allegheny ... Now, it has demonstrated that even if it owns the mineral rights, it is still going to give the green light to more oil and gas drilling in this jewel of the Allegheny, which has already been severely impacted by drill- ing," said Megan Rulli, outreach coordinator for the Allegheny Defense Project. The environmental group is opposed to timber cutting and mineral extraction in the forest, 150 miles north of Pittsburgh.
The Forest Service doesn't own mineral rights, including gas and oil rights, under 93 percent of the forest that sprawls over Elk, Forest, McKean and Warren counties. That's because when clear-cut and fire-scarred private land was purchased to assemble the forest for watershed protection in 1923, not enough money was appropriated to buy the mineral rights.
They were retained by the individuals who sold the surface land to the federal government. The rights later were sold to gas and oil companies that, under state law, have the right to access the subsurface property. As a result, the state's only national forest contains more active wells than all the other 154 national forests in the United States combined.
Just 7 percent -- 34,973 acres -- of the Allegheny's underlying oil and gas rights are publicly owned, and most of that is off-limits to drilling because it's either beneath the Allegheny Reservoir or in federally protected wilderness areas.
But 10,275 of those acres are available for leasing by the federal Bureau of Land Management, which manages mineral rights under all federal lands.
Warren-based PGE won a lease for what's known as "Tract 13" in December 2005, and plans to install six gas and oil wells and connect roads and pipelines on the 101-acre plot near Salmon Creek, a popular, Forest County trout stream, in the southcentral part of the national forest.
The oil- and gas-development company has drilled and operates more than 800 wells in and around the national forest, including many in the Salmon Creek watershed, but the government lease is its first, said Douglas Kuntz, PGE president and chief executive officer.
"We bid on it for the same reason we drill in other areas," Mr. Kuntz said. "It's a purely geological play with good productive horizons."
The tract is one of five identified by a 1981 Forest Service environmental assessment as suitable for "limited surface occupancy," meaning they can be leased for gas and oil production. Three were leased in the 1980s and early 1990s, and although Forest Service records list 51 "active" wells on those properties, none is paying royalties to the government or producing gas or oil.
The PGE lease is the first granted under the Allegheny's 10-year land management plan approved in March. A supporting study of scenic resources identified the Salmon Creek area as "one of the most threatened landscapes" in the forest due to the high number of gas and oil wells drilled there in recent years.
"I think the Forest Service and BLM are wrong in relying on an outdated 1981 environmental assessment that is inadequate by today's standards and doesn't take into account the cumulative effects of other drilling in the area," said Ryan Talbot, forest watch coordinator for the Allegheny Defense Project.
Steve Miller, an Allegheny National Forest spokesman, acknowledged that there had been considerable well development in the Salmon Creek watershed despite its sensitive landscape, but said the government's ownership of the sub-surface mineral rights will allow it to exercise additional controls and management responsibilities for the six PGE wells.
"A lot of areas that have active oil and gas drilling in the forest are fragile areas with Class One trout streams, and Salmon Creek is just one of them," Mr. Miller said. "It's a high-profile area, and we recognize that."
The lease was granted as the Forest Service seeks to exercise the tighter regulatory review and oversight of gas and oil well development mandated by the new Allegheny land management plan that have been appealed by oil and gas developers. The management plan also proposes that the government purchase additional mineral rights in the forest as a way to protect sensitive landscapes and wilderness,
"The government shouldn't be racing to make the 7 percent of the mineral rights they own look like the 93 percent they don't own," Mr. Talbot said. "It wants to purchase subsurface mineral rights according to the plan, but if this is what it's going to do with them, what's the point?"
He said the environmental group plans to submit extensive comments on the lease during a public comment period that ends Aug. 1, even though the lease has already been granted. The comments will be used by the Forest Service to identify environmental issues and develop mitigation measures. The Forest Service is also conducting a National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, review of the leased area that will be used to develop a site-specific operating plan for the wells.
There's no deadline for the review, said Mr. Miller, and there could be more leases to drill the existing, publicly owned gas and oil reserves.
"There's no active program to discourage that," he said. "New leases would have to go through BLM, and to commit to a new lease, the area would have to go through NEPA, but I believe we'd entertain it."
Don Hopey can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1983.