Oil & Gas Drilling Labeled Major Threat to Eastern Forests

For Immediate Release

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Luke Eshleman (202) 265-7337

Oil & Gas Drilling Labeled Major Threat to Eastern Forests

U.S. Forest Service Flying Blind on Drilling Impacts Yet Still Issues More Permits

WASHINGTON - 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..."

A free and independent press is essential to the health of a functioning democracy

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."

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Read the list of drilling impact "Information Needs"

See the" key threats" briefing paper

Look at the e-mailed legal advice from OGC

View objections to including anything from OGC in workshop handouts

Review the PEER complaint to the IG about the Monongahela

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Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.

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