Tighter rules eyed for national forests

Would affect oil, gas drilling regulations

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The Sierra Club has proposed more protective rules to regulate oil and gas drilling in the Allegheny National Forest and other federal lands across the country.

The Sierra Club said the U.S. Forest Service needs to more aggressively exercise its authority to regulate oil and gas drilling through a new permitting system that requires environmental assessment of all drilling impacts, better water and ecosystem protections and remediation of damage to public lands.

The 29-page Sierra Club proposal filed yesterday in Washington, D.C., is in response to the Forest Service's December decision to review and revise, for the first time in 46 years, how it regulates access to and extraction of privately-owned mineral rights under millions of acres of federal lands.

Craig Holt Segall, the Sierra Club environmental lawyer who wrote the proposal, said it ensures access to those subsurface mineral rights while clarifying protections for the publicly owned forests and grasslands.

"The Forest Service has been getting the balance wrong," Mr. Segall said. "The problem is not resource extraction but rather extraction without adequate regulation or any public disclosure or comment."

The Allegheny National Forest is especially vulnerable, he said, because oil and gas companies own the subsurface rights under 93 percent of the 513,000-acre forest in Elk, Forest, McKean and Warren counties.

High prices for oil and gas coupled to strong demand have spurred drilling in Pennsylvania's only national forest in recent years. More than 1,000 wells were drilled there in each of the last two years and more than 9,000 wells are now in operation there, raising environmental concerns about water pollution, forest fragmentation and wildlife impacts.

Reacting to those concerns earlier this month the Forest Service transferred oversight of oil and gas drilling in the Allegheny to the regional office in Milwaukee, Wisc., and began an environmental impact study of drilling's impact on the forest.

"What's been happening in the Allegheny highlights the need for the Forest Service to take action," Mr. Segall said. "Drilling is now proposed near the Rimrock Overlook, a popular tourist destination, and the public deserves a voice in that decision."

Well drilling is possible in the Allegheny National Forest because when it was established in 1923, the money provided by Congress was used to buy as much surface land as possible. Buying the mineral rights under that land would have severely reduced the size of the forest and its effectiveness in controlling flooding in the Allegheny River watershed, including Pittsburgh.

Mr. Segall said federal grasslands in Texas and national forests in Michigan, Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia, where subsurface rights are also privately owned, are dealing with similar problems.

But Steve Rhoads, president of the Pennsylvania Oil & Gas Association, a Harrisburg-based trade and lobbying organization, said the owners of sub-surface minerals have absolute rights of access and extraction.

"It's clear to us, according to statutes, common law and court decisions, that we have rights not governed by Forest Service rules," said Mr. Rhoads, who added that the organization has submitted comments to that effect to the Forest Service.

"As for permitting authority, the Forest Service doesn't have it," he said. "So there's no need for additional rules."

But the Sierra Club proposes changes requiring well siting be done in a way to cause minimal environmental damage and suggests that permits be issued only after drilling companies pay an annual fee to cover the loss of use of public land due to their drilling operations. Mr. Segall said the Obama administration's emphasis on "transparency" in government should bode well for such rules.

"I hope the new administration realizes the extent of the problem," he said. "The Forest Service still has a duty to make sure all uses of public land are wisely and properly done. There will be resource extraction. We want to make sure it's done right."

Don Hopey can be reached at dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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