On July 2, U.S. District Court Judge Sean McLaughlin held a hearing on how a lawsuit filed by the oil and gas industry against the U.S. Forest Service and three environmental groups should be resolved. The oil and gas industry sued the Forest Service and the three groups, Allegheny Defense Project, Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, and Sierra Club, after the parties entered into a settlement agreement in 2009. That settlement simply required the Forest Service to comply with federal law by preparing an appropriate environmental analysis and allowing the public to comment before the Forest Service issues its "Notice to Proceed" to oil and gas companies for logging, road construction and drilling operations in the Allegheny National Forest.
For decades, the Forest Service ignored its duty to involve the public in the decision-making process regarding oil and gas drilling in the Allegheny. In 1984, however, the Forest Service published a handbook for regulating oil and gas drilling that required environmental analysis and public participation in compliance with federal law.
Unfortunately, the Forest Service was not consistent in following its own handbook. Eventually, the Forest Service did an about-face, claiming that it no longer had to prepare an environmental analysis or seek public input about oil and gas drilling since 93% of the mineral rights underlying the Allegheny are privately owned. Instead, the Forest Service and the oil and gas companies took the decision-making process behind closed doors and negotiated development plans in secret.
Despite the fact that 93% of the mineral rights are privately owned, the Forest Service still has a duty, under federal law, to protect the publicly owned surface. That duty requires the Forest Service to consider alternatives to proposed development plans and include the public in the process. That is what the Forest Service agreed to in the 2009 settlement agreement.
According to the Bradford Era, at the end of the July 2 hearing, Judge McLaughlin bemoaned the need for environmental analysis or public involvement, claiming that the non-public "collaborative effort" between the Forest Service and oil and gas companies "has worked well for 35 years." This statement is quite troubling since the only interested party that the non-public "collaborative effort" has worked well for is the oil and gas industry, which has greatly benefitted from having its drilling plans shielded from environmental analysis and public scrutiny. Besides the oil and gas industry, though, who has benefitted from secret negotiations regarding drilling in the Allegheny?
The public certainly has not benefitted. In 2007, the Forest Service encouraged citizens interested in remote recreation opportunities to think twice before coming to the Allegheny National Forest since oil and gas drilling has industrialized so much of the landscape. The Forest Service has also documented declines in species viability from the extensive fragmentation caused by thousands of miles of oil and gas roads to access thousands of oil and gas well sites and storage tank facilities. Has the non-public "collaborative effort" worked well for these species or those interested in remote recreation opportunities?
The truth is, for any "collaborative effort" to be effective, all stakeholders must have a seat at the table. For decades, the "collaborative effort" employed by the Forest Service and the oil and gas industry shut the public out of the process. This is no way to manage a national forest. The oil and gas industry may own the mineral rights but the American people own the surface and the people must be allowed to voice their opinion about how their national forest is being impacted by oil and gas drilling.
Bill Belitskus of Kane is the board president for the Allegheny Defense Project.