The U.S. Forest Service is ready to settle a lawsuit filed by three environmental groups, but two other groups that signed on as intervenor defendants aren't going along with the agreement.
On Tuesday, the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Association (POGAM) and Allegheny Forest Alliance (AFA), were granted status as intervenor defendants. According to legal definition, intervenors are groups that choose to join ongoing lawsuits. The facts and the law issues must apply to the intervenor as much as to one of the existing contestants.
A day later, on Wednesday, the Forest Service and the plaintiffs in the suit - Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE), Allegheny Defense Project (ADP), and the Sierra Club - filed a settlement agreement that would end the suit and change the way development applications are handled on the Allegheny National Forest (ANF). As part of that agreement, the Forest Service would also pay more than $19,000 in the plaintiffs' attorney fees.
The Forest Service has set up a series of three public meetings to discuss the settlement agreement and future oil and gas development practice on the forest.
If the intervenor defendants get their way, the discussion of the settlement may be entirely academic.
On Thursday, the intervenor defendants filed what amounts to a request that the case be decided in favor of the Forest Service.
The filing asks "this honorable court to enter judgment in favor of defendant Forest Service and dismiss the first amended complaint, with prejudice."
Neither the settlement nor the intervenor defendants' filing had gotten approval from a judge as of Friday. According to federal district court officials in Erie, decisions on the filings have not been scheduled.
In the settlement agreement, the Forest Service agrees to "undertake appropriate NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) analysis prior to issuing notices to proceed" for oil and gas development on the forest.
That analysis would, according to the agreement, result in one of three things: a categorical exclusion, the preparation of an environmental assessment, or preparation of an environmental impact statement.
For years, the Forest Service has reviewed applications for development, made suggestions to minimize impacts to the surface, and issued notices to proceed.
The intervenor defendants argue that notices to proceed are beyond the Forest Service's rights. In the filing, the groups oppose extending the Forest Service's ability to restrict access to subsurface mineral rights. That would include requiring NEPA analysis.
"Applicable federal and state law and title documents, not notices to proceed issued by defendant Forest Service, allow oil and gas companies to undertake oil and gas development activities within the ANF," according to the POGAM and AFA filing.
The Forest Service's standard practice "provides for legal and scientific analysis of the proposed activities, but without the procedural requirements of NEPA," according to POGAM and AFA. The "U.S. Forest Service lacks the requisite regulatory authority to approve or disapprove oil and gas development activities."
In fact, "Defendant Forest Service is obligated as a matter of law to accommodate oil and gas development on lands with privately owned OGM rights," the document continues.
Although the agreement has not been signed by a judge yet, and is therefore not official, the environmental groups that filed the suit are pleased with the settlement agreement.
"The settlement agreement stipulates that no oil and gas drilling can occur within Wilderness Study Areas, National Recreation Areas, Inventoried Roadless Areas, the Tionesta Scenic and Research Natural Areas, and the Morrison Run Area west to the Rimrock Overlook without environmental analysis and public comment and appeal opportunities," ADP's Forest Watch Coordinator Ryan Talbott said.
"These areas contain some of the most remote wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities on the Allegheny National Forest," Talbott said. "Because of this settlement, places like Minister Valley, Tracy Ridge, and Rimrock are now protected from unregulated oil and gas drilling."
"This is a victory for everyone who enjoys the natural beauty of the Allegheny National Forest," Sierra Club's David Sublette said. "Oil and gas development threatens to destroy the sensitive wildlife habitat and spectacular wilderness that draw thousands of visitors to the Allegheny each year."
"This agreement will shed daylight on a process that has been hidden from public view for far too long," Sublette said. "This agreement represents a significant policy shift for the Allegheny National Forest."
"With this settlement, the Forest Service is making a commitment to disclose to people living near the Allegheny National Forest what impact oil and gas drilling will have on their water quality, recreational opportunities, and the other benefits they expect from the national forest in their backyard," FSEEE Executive Director Andy Stahl said. "The Forest Service certainly has the duty to set conditions to prevent damage to the surface land it owns and protect wildlife on that land."