- The Washington Times - Friday, April 10, 2009

PITTSBURGH (AP) - The U.S. Forest Service will review and allow public comment on gas and oil drilling projects in the Allegheny National Forest under a settlement reached with environmental groups.

The groups claimed in a federal lawsuit that the Forest Service was not conducting required federal environmental reviews on several dozen drilling projects, thus potentially jeopardizing the environment and wildlife in Pennsylvania’s only 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 water quality, recreational opportunities, and the other benefits they expect from the national forest in their backyard,” Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, said in a statement Thursday.

The 800-square-mile forest lies in Elk, Forest, McKean and Warren counties. While the federal government owns the surface, more than 90 percent of the mineral rights that lie underground are privately owned. The government did not buy the mineral rights when the forest was created nearly 90 years ago.

Disputes over whether the Forest Service can regulate drilling have led to several other lawsuits recently as demand for oil has spurred drilling in the Allegheny.

Pending suits brought by gas and oil interests claim the Forest Service cannot regulate drillers. The settlement, dated Wednesday, has no bearing on the other litigation, however.

The Forest Service estimates some 11,000 to 12,000 oil and gas wells are in production in the Allegheny. Drilling and numerous roads built in support of drilling projects can destroy wildlife habitat and hurt recreation opportunities, according to environmental groups.

“This is long overdue. The last five years has seen thousands of wells drilled and in not one of them was the public allowed to comment,” Ryan Talbott of the Allegheny Defense Project, another plaintiff, said Friday. The Sierra Club was also a plaintiff in the lawsuit, filed in November.

A Justice Department spokesman called the settlement a fair resolution on Friday.

“It allows development … to proceed immediately on a large number of wells,” spokesman Andrew Ames said. “It also allows future requested development … to proceed after an evaluation of the environmental effects to the surface resources.”

The Forest Service has scheduled several meetings for next week to discuss the settlement and drilling program.

The Forest Service will also pay about $19,200 for plaintiff attorney fees.

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