On Thursday, a federal District Court judge in Erie threw out an agreement between the U.S. Forest Service and three environmental groups which created an effective ban on drilling with the Allegheny National Forest (ANF) that lasted more than three years.
U.S. District Judge Sean McLaughlin granted a motion for summary judgment in the case to plaintiffs Minard Run Oil Company of Bradford, the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association (PIOGA), the Allegheny Forest Alliance (AFA) and Warren County vacating the 2008 agreement and converting his 2009 decision on the matter into a final judgment.
Under the settlement agreement between the Forest Service and Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE), the Allegheny Defense Project (ADP) and the Sierra Club, the Forest Service would not issue authorization to access mineral deposits for oil and gas projects without analyses which included an environmental impact statement. Fifty-four permit applications were excluded under a grandfather clause in the agreement.
In an April 2009 statement, then-ANF Supervisor Leanne Marten issued a statement explaining, "... pending oil and gas proposals, and all future proposals, will be processed after the appropriate level of environmental analysis has been conducted." The statement also announced a "forest-wide, site specific environmental analysis for proposals that were not included in the settlement and any other proposals for activity anticipated between now and 2013."
Under the policy, no new drilling in the ANF could be authorized until completion of the forest-wide analysis, then estimated for spring 2010.
Minard Run, PIOGA, AFA and Warren County filed suit in June 2009 claiming the policy imposed an effective ban on drilling which exceeded the authority of the Forest Service and in violation of procedural law. The suit also alleged the estimate for completion of the analyses was unrealistic, claiming a forest-wide analysis would take several years. The group alleged the policy would prevent mineral rights owners from accessing their property resulting in damage to the owners, related business and local communities.
On Dec. 15, 2009, McLaughlin granted a preliminary injunction halting implementation of the new Forest Service policy and the agreement.
The Forest Service, FSEEE, ADP and Sierra Club appealed the court order. While awaiting appeals results, the de facto ban continued.
On Sept. 20, 2011, McLaughlin's order was upheld in federal appeals court and the Forest Service returned to a 60-day cooperative framework for oil and gas permit approval.
In his Thursday ruling, McLaughlin said his 2009 determination, "is now the law of the case and is binding."
Tim McCrum of law firm Crowell & Moring, who argued the case, said, "We are very pleased that Judge McLaughlin has issued a final judgment in favor of the oil and gas industry and ruled against (the defendants) on all points."
PIOGA issued a press release stating, "PIOGA is pleased that Judge McLaughlin has made his previous preliminary rulings final on this matter, which puts an end to what was clearly an illegal settlement agreement."
Current Allegheny National Forest Supervisor Erin Connelly was unavailable for comment.