An agreement proposed Thursday by attorneys on both sides of a federal lawsuit involving mineral rights on the Allegheny National Forest would throw out a settlement agreement between the U.S. Forest Service and a group of environmentalists, and resolve most of the suit in favor of the oil interests.
The lawsuit was filed in 2009 by Minard Run Oil Co. and the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association (PIOGA) against the U.S. Forest Service, several of its officials, the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, Allegheny Defense Project and Sierra Club.
A "joint notice and proposal to govern future proceedings" was filed by the attorneys for the oil interests and for the federal defendants on Thursday. In it, the attorneys explain they have met "to explore a mutually agreeable route toward resolving this lawsuit."
Both sides agree the federal judge should enter an order that vacates the April 2009 settlement agreement between the Forest Service and a group of environmentalists; and converts federal Judge Sean McLaughlin's December 2009 memorandum opinion on the case "into a final declaratory judgment on the merits."
While the attorneys have agreed on several of the main parts of the lawsuit, the two sides still differ on the remedy.
The oil interests want a judge to make permanent an injunction that prevents the Forest Service from halting new drilling on the national forest until an environmental impact assessment could be performed. The Forest Service does not feel that would an appropriate solution. The attorneys for both sides will file briefs on their views "on the nature of remedy and judicial relief."
The suit came about after the settlement agreement with the environmental groups, and a contemporaneous statement from then-Forest Supervisor Leann Marten. The Forest Service indicated the agreement was their acknowledgment that they had an obligation to perform an environmental assessment prior to issuing a Notice to Proceed with drilling on a national forest. Marten's statement said no new Notices to Proceed would be issued until a forestwide environmental impact study was completed, which effectively halted new drilling on the Allegheny National Forest.
Minard Run and PIOGA filed suit. In December 2009, McLaughlin issued an injunction on the Forest Service, ordering them to return to previous policies. The Forest Service and environmental groups filed an appeal, saying the change was not a final agency action, and therefore was not subject to legal challenges.
In September, a three-judge panel on the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld McLaughlin's order. The environmental groups asked for a reconsideration by the full panel of judges; it was denied.