Oil and Gas Drilling Labeled Major Threat to Eastern Forests
U.S. Forest Service Flying Blind on Drilling Impacts Yet Still Issues More Permits
Washington, DC — Experts within the U.S. Forests Service call oil and gas development “a major threat to our forest lands” due to an array of poorly understood impacts on water and wildlife, according to agency workshop papers released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The agency is reeling from court challenges, embarrassing disclosures and even a stunning rebuke from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management which recently withdrew leasing for tracts on the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia.
On November 12-13, 2008, the Forest Service convened a workshop for officials from Eastern States to address “oil and gas exploration” concerns. Workshop materials obtained by PEER under the Freedom of Information Act show its specialists outlining large information gaps, such as –
- Subsurface effects of drilling on groundwater, as well as on “hibernating bats”;
- Surface effects ranging from spread of invasive species to habitat fragmentation; and
- Inability of the agency to prevent wildlife from drinking poisoned water in drilling “surface pits”.
The regional biologist who briefed the gathering characterized drilling as being “as dangerous [to forests] as our unregulated motorized recreation” which the agency had classified as one of its four biggest threats. He urged that his agency must “get a handle on [drilling] to protect our resources”.
“The Obama pledge to bring science-based resource management is perhaps most desperately needed in the U.S. Forest Service,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that these oil and gas issues will confront the President’s yet-to-be-named appointees. “Despite these gaping data holes, the Forest Service continues to issue permits often under impossible findings that there are no significant impacts.”
The Forest Service’s uncertainty is not confined to science but extends to the law. The agency had previously taken the position that no environmental safeguards could be applied to privately-held subsurface rights, even in the most sensitive forest tracts. Officials ignored contrary legal advice from its sister agency, the Interior Department. At the November workshop, it received similar legal advice from its own lawyers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of General Counsel (OGC). In one e-mail obtained by PEER, OGC attorney Michael Danaher wrote:
“As a general rule,…the exercise of outstanding or reserved O&G [oil & gas] rights on NF lands in no way preempts the laws or regulations dealing with NF…decision-making…such activities are subject to the reasonable application of all such laws…”
Oddly, Danaher vehemently resisted providing this advice in writing to workshop participants. PEER is submitting the workshop materials to the USDA Office of Inspector General to supplement an earlier complaint it had filed about malfeasance on the Monongahela NF.
“The Forest Service operates under an unhealthy ‘don’t-ask-don’t-tell’ regime when it comes to oil and gas drilling,” Ruch added. “This tortured stance forces the agency’s own scientists to ignore obvious problems, putting them in an intolerable conflict between their careers and their consciences.”