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Oil and Gas
Drilling to Infinity in the Allegheny

In 1859, Edwin Drake sunk the first successful oil well in the United States near Titusville, Pennsylvania, a few miles west of what would eventually become the Allegheny National Forest. This event dramatically altered the shape of world economics, not to mention the land. In the decades that followed, oil, and later natural gas, would be extracted from the Allegheny Plateau at unprecedented levels, leaving in its wake polluted waters, denuded lands and ghost towns from a boom and bust economy.

By the time the Allegheny National Forest was designated in 1923 there were already two major oil fields on either side of the forest: The Oil City/Franklin area in Venango County, and Bradford in McKean County. Between these two areas were scattered wells distributed across a virtually tree-less landscape that was just beginning to recover from what was at the time the most intense clearcut logging the world had ever witnessed.

When the federal government began to purchase lands to create the Allegheny, a conscious decision was made to only pursue surface ownership. This left the subsurface rights in the hands of a multitude of individuals and companies that would continue to influence the management of the Allegheny for decades to come. This decision would later prove to be at odds with the purpose for creating the Allegheny, which was specifically designated for watershed protection.

However, the Allegheny's first supervisor quickly encouraged the continuation of mineral extraction within the Allegheny and emphasized the Forest Service's duty to provide adequate surface access to the private party. This policy continues today despite laws that have been passed regarding the protection of public forests. The 1986 Forest Plan for the Allegheny National Forest clearly defines the current policy of the Forest Service when it comes to drilling for oil and gas in the national forest:

"The Allegheny National Forest encourages mineral resource development and works cooperatively with the private owners to reduce impacts to surface resources...The Allegheny National Forest policy on private oil and gas development is to foster a spirit of cooperation between the Forest Service and the developers to provide both surface and subsurface resource protection and development. In this atmosphere of cooperation, financial benefits are greatest for both parties and adverse environmental effects are reduced." (emphasis added)

The Forest Plan clearly indicates that the financial incentive incurred for the private developer from drilling as well as the Forest Service's benefit from increased road access (at taxpayer expense) combine to serve as the guiding principle for forest management. It is unclear how "adverse environmental effects are reduced" under this policy. After all, it is this policy that has allowed the Allegheny to have more oil and gas wells than the other 154 national forests combined. Key to restoring the Allegheny from over a century of intense oil and gas development is the 1984 Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Act. This law states that surface owners have the right to file objections to proposed oil and gas wells, particularly where there is concern about the proposed drillings' impact to "publicly owned parks, forests, gamelands and wildlife areas; National or State scenic rivers; national natural landmarks; habitats of rare and endangered flora and fauna and other critical communities; historical and archaeological sites listed on the Federal or State list of historic places."

Since 1984, the Forest Service has allowed over 3,000 wells to be drilled in the Allegheny National Forest without ever once filing an objection. Could it be that all these wells were drilled with the utmost concern for the environment with no "adverse environmental effects?"

Hardly.

Take the 1987 Oil Spill Conference held in Baltimore for instance: "In 1985 the U.S. EPA declared northwestern Pennsylvania to have a major oil spill with multiple sources. This oil spill is unusual in that, rather than being one large concentrated spill, it consists of small discharges from thousands of individual wells, tanks, and ponds, which contribute to a major environmental problem and make discovery, containment and enforcement a difficult and complicated task."

The Forest Service recently released a Roads Analysis Report. Included in that report were several attachments of maps containing information about roads, including oil and gas roads. One map reveals that the Sackett oil and gas development is of a size and road density comparable to the city of Warren, PA. This is a shameful discovery and is the result of a failure on behalf of the Forest Service and the DEP to protect the surface.

Allegheny Wild! proposes to phase out oil and gas developments over a thirty-year period. This allows time for the Forest Service to solicit Congressional funds for subsurface acquisition and to establish an effective restoration program to return areas of development to native forest conditions. In the short-term there must be immediate protection for the Tionesta Scenic Area, Tracy Ridge National Recreation Area, North Country National Scenic Trail, proposed Wilderness Areas, and the Allegheny and Clarion Wild & Scenic River Corridors.

To do this, the Forest Service must first solicit the necessary funds from Congress to purchase the mineral rights beneath these areas of critical public and wildlife value. While awaiting a response from Congress, the Forest Service must file objections under Section 202(a) of the Oil and Gas Act and the DEP must reject permits under Section 205(c) of the Oil and Gas Act. Once this is done and an effective restoration program is established, the long-term needs can begin to be addressed including subsurface acquisition in the remainder of the forest, quality jobs restoring developments to native forest and cleaning up degraded watersheds.

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