We all know that the Bush Administration's energy plan includes exploiting our public lands through increased oil and gas drilling. While much of the debate over drilling for oil and gas has focused on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Rocky Mountains, drilling for oil and gas in Pennsylvania's Allegheny National Forest is at record levels. Of course, you wouldn't know it by the lack of media coverage, with a recent notable exception by the Pittsburgh City Paper, but make no mistake...this is one of the most serious environmental issues facing northern Pennsylvania and is a tragic example of what is wrong with our nation's energy policies.
To understand oil and gas drilling in the Allegheny National Forest, there is a need for a brief history to lay the foundation for how and why oil and gas drilling is one of the most significant environmental issues in northernwestern Pennsylvania. The Allegheny lies just minutes east of the site of the nation's first commercial oil well, the Drake well, in Titusville, PA. Drilled in 1859 by Edwin Drake, this event brought about the age of oil. After a few short years, however, the oil boom went bust and the landscape was left devastated.
The cumulative effects from rampant oil drilling and unregulated clearcutting led to catastrophic wildfires throughout Pennsylvania during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The amount of clearcutting that occurred on the Allegheny Plateau in northwestern Pennsylvania was, in part, blamed for flooding in Pittsburgh, three hours south. As a result, President Coolidge designated the Allegheny National Forest in 1923 for the purposes of protecting the headwaters of the Allegheny River. The Allegheny was nicknamed the "Allegheny Brush Patch" because there were actually very few trees left on the denuded landscape.
President Coolidge committed a fatal flaw, however, when designating the Allegheny National Forest - the federal government decided NOT to purchase the mineral rights when they purchased the surface. To this day, over 93% of the mineral rights beneath the Allegheny remain in private hands. The Forest Service has historically allowed the oil and gas industry carte blanche access to the Allegheny for road construction and drilling.
According to the Forest Service, there are over 9,000 active oil and gas wells in the Allegheny, more oil and gas wells than all other national forests combined! More than 1,000 wells were drilled in 2006 alone, a five-fold increase in just the last four years. This is staggering when you consider the national forest system is 193,000,000 acres and the Allegheny is only 513,000 acres (or just 0.0026% of the national forest system).
Just looking at this Google Earth image gives you a sense of how bad the situation in the Allegheny is. In the lower part of the image is the largest oil and gas development in the Alllegheny. Note the high density of road construction. This oil and gas development covers thousands of acres and has road densities comparable to a small city - right in the middle of a national forest! You can also see pipelines cutting through the forest as well as a large amount of clearcutting. This fragmentation is devastating from a habitat conservation standpoint. It is also devastating from a socio-economic standpoint as this kind of development is certain to decrease recreation and tourism opportunities...unless there's a niche market for driving around a forest to look at oil and gas wells. I tend to think there isn't.
For a contrast, here's another image that shows a roadless area in the Allegheny. The difference is night and day. This is the Tracy Ridge National Recreation Area and Sugar Run roadless Area near the New York border. This image shows the Allegheny Front roadless area which is also a National Recreation Area. These areas stand out for the lack of roads and clearcuts that is the norm in the Allegheny as the rest of the image shows.
Unfortunately, oil and gas drilling is threatening these areas as well. Take particular notice to the last image of the Allegheny Front area. You can see oil and gas drilling encroaching on the roadless area from the east. And now we know that an oil and gas company is actually drilling within the Allegheny Front area and the Forest Service is proposing to allow this company more access.
So why is this occurring in what is supposed to be a national forest?
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has regulatory authority under the state Oil and Gas Act to issue permits for oil and gas drilling in the state, including the Allegheny National Forest. DEP also administers the National Pollutant Discharge and Elimination Systems (NPDES) permitting process. NPDES permits are necessary for disclosing how oil companies will control erosion and sedimentation resulting from road construction and other development infrastructure. NPDES permits are required by the Clean Water Act and the EPA has delegated the authority to issue these permits to the DEP.
The Oil and Gas Act gives surface owners the authority to file objections to the DEP about the location of a proposed well when the well is proposed on land that is owned by someone other than the subsurface owner. The Forest Service, therefore, has the authority to file objections to the DEP about the location of oil and gas wells in the Allegheny National Forest. Unfortunately, the Forest Service has rarely, if ever, exercised this authority. Over 5,000 wells have been drilled since the Forest Service got this authority with the passage of the Oil and Gas Act in 1984, but I am unaware of a single objection ever being filed.
This process is quite different from what typically occurs on national forest lands where the mineral rights are owned by the federal government. Those situations involve leasing, which is clearly a federal action, therefore triggering the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). NEPA requires federal agencies to include the public in the process of analyzing the environmental impacts of a proposed action. In the Allegheny, since the mineral rights are mostly privately owned, the Forest Service contends this is not a federal action (since the agency isn't proposing the drilling through a lease agreement), therefore NEPA does not apply. This means there is no environmental analysis and no public participation for the vast majority of oil and gas drilling in the Allegheny National Forest.
When oil companies propose to drill on the Allegheny, they notify the Forest Service of their intent to drill on the federal surface and apply for a well-drilling permit with the DEP. In most cases, the DEP issues the well-drilling permit and the Forest Service issues a "Notice to Proceed." The Forest Service contends that the "Notice to Proceed" does not amount to a "federal action," which would trigger NEPA duties on the Forest Service. Essentially, these two agencies, one federal (Forest Service), and one state (DEP), work together with the oil companies to allow oil and gas drilling to go forward with little oversight. The Forest Service consistently maintains that they must allow the oil companies to access the federal surface so they can access their private mineral rights.
There are several steps that can be taken to remedy this situation. First, the Forest Service must take a much more aggressive stance to protect the surface of the Allegheny, which should be their highest priority. This means actually filing objections to the location of oil and gas wells to the DEP. Section 205(c) of the Oil and Gas Act gives the Forest Service ample justification for filing such an objection:
The department shall, on making a determination on a well permit, consider the impact of the proposed well on public resources to include, but not be limited to, the following:
(1) Publicly owned parks, forests, gamelands and wildlife areas.
(2) National or State scenic rivers.
(3) National natural landmarks.
(4) Habitats of rare and endangered flora and fauna and other critical communities.
(5) Historical and archaeological sites listed on the Federal or State list of historic places.
But even if the Forest Service filed objections to every proposed oil and gas well, there's still the matter of the DEP. The DEP might as well be an acronym for the Department of Everything Permitted. With the flurry of drilling activity that is occurring in Pennsylvania right now, the DEP, instead of maybe delaying permits to assure that protection of the environment remains their highest priority, actually hired more personnel so they could issue more permits.
Quite simply, the DEP has become an extension of the oil and gas industry in Pennsylvania. The DEP has very few inspectors in the field to monitor oil and gas companies' compliance with environmental laws and with the rate of drilling at the moment, environmental protection is taking a back seat to profits for the oil companies. For instance, a recent oil spill in the Allegheny occurred because of faulty equipment.
There is more the Forest Service could do, however, to possibly offset the likely continued unwillingness of the DEP to actually do their job. First and foremost, the Forest Service could petition Congress for funds to purchase the mineral rights below the Allegheny National Forest. At a minimum, the Forest Service should be doing this for special areas in the Allegheny that have not yet been impacted by oil and gas drilling (i.e., roadless areas).
Second, the Forest Service, under its regulations, can place reasonable restrictions on surface occupancy. In other words, the Forest Service has coercive power to require mineral owners to follow its regulations. Third, it is reasonable to argue that the Forest Service's approval of private oil and gas drilling, through the "Notice to Proceed" issuance, is a "major federal action," thus triggering NEPA and the need for environmental analysis and pubic participation.
The DEP can do much more as well. For instance, the DEP can deny permits to companies that have a history of non-compliance with state and federal laws. Currently, the DEP has allowed a company by the name of Vertical Resources (aka - Synd Enterprises) to start drilling wells in the Alleghey Front National Recreation Area within the Allegheny National Forest. This area is also a Roadless Area that is supposed to be protected from road construction under the 2001 Roadless Rule, signed by President Clinton.
In 2004, the DEP published an evaluation of oil companies' compliance with erosion and sedimentation control measures. For both 2002 and 2003, Vertical Resources had the most violations in the northwest region of Pennsylvania. In fact, the company is so arrogant, that when confronted about a particular violation, the operator told the DEP:
“…after getting the permit, I threw it in the back of my pickup and never looked at it again.”
This insanity must stop! The Forest Service predicts that at the current rate of drilling, there could be 20,000 oil and gas wells in the Allegheny by 2020. This will have dramatic effects on wildlife habitat due to fragmentation. It will also certainly lead to a decrease in recreation and tourism opportunities, hurting our local businesses.
What can you do to help? Contact the following people and let them know that you do not think this is an appropriate way for the Allegheny National Forest, or any national forest for that matter, to be managed. Tell them that this land belongs to all Americans and is not the private stomping grounds for the oil and gas industry. Also remind them that the Forest Service and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (the regulatory agency that issues permits for oil drilling in PA) are not doing their jobs to protect Pennsylvania's only national forest, the Allegheny National Forest.
Also, you can go to Heartwood's Action Alert page to send comments to stop a proposal to allow road construction in the Allegheny Front National Recreation Area to faciliate oil and gas drilling. For more information about the Allegheny, visit the Allegheny Defense Project's website.