Land management bureau inspections are current for oil and gas wells on Pa.’s federal lands

By Jon O’Connell joconnell@civitasmedia.com

June 14, 2014

While western and southern states are floundering when it comes to inspecting high-priority oil and gas wells on federal lands, Pennsylvania scores high in that area.

But that’s probably because there are only six of them.

According to documents obtained last week by The Associated Press, 40 percent of new, high-priority oil and gas wells on federal and Native American territories have gone unchecked by the Bureau of Land Management.

There are only six oil wells in the Allegheny National Forest operated by Pennsylvania General Energy identified as high-priority, and Robert Gillcash, the bureau’s deputy external affairs director for the northeast, said all six Pennsylvania wells are compliant with inspection standards.

Allegheny National Forest is the only federally owned land in Pennsylvania, and the bureau acts as its leasing agent.

While western states such as Utah, Wyoming and California have their own bureau offices devoted to maintaining the vast federal and Native American territories in those states, the eastern states are mostly owned by the citizenry or the state.

Comparatively speaking, there are so few national lands in the country’s northern region, the BLM has only one office for the region stretching from Minnesota, to Missouri, to Maine.

“We really don’t have that many federal lands to manage in the Northeast, so the number of wells is quite small,” Gillcash said Friday in an email.

Federal priority

Wells drilled on federal lands are tracked based on priority. Low-priority wells generally are monitored by states’ own environmental protection agencies. High-priority wells, those that are near fresh-water supplies or areas known to be particularly volatile, get extra attention from the bureau.

Shrinking resources and an unprecedented number of new wells tapped in many parts of the country have overwhelmed the bureau’s limited number of qualified inspectors, the AP reports.

“The BLM has formal and informal agreements with all states with regard to inspections,” Gillcash said. “The BLM is the only federal agency with the authority and technical expertise to inspect wells on federal land. The inspections are mandated by law.”

As of 2007, there were around 7,000 oil and gas wells in the forest’s 513,000 acres, according to a report commissioned by the Allegheny National Forest.

The federal government purchased the Allegheny National Forest in 1923.

The people’s land

Mark Szybist, an attorney for the environmental advocacy group PennFuture, said that when the federal government scooped up the territory about a century ago, with some exceptions, many of its former owners retained their mineral rights as more folks became aware of the vast oil and gas reserves below Pennsylvania.

“That takes a lot of the surface control from surface owners,” Szybist said. “The BLM has relatively little power to control what goes on there.”

Many times, oil and gas rights outweigh surface rights, Szybist said.

Szybist, originally of Williamsport, works out of the organization’s downtown Wilkes-Barre office handling PennFuture’s legal matters, primarily with state issues, but he said there are parallels to be drawn between land leased by the state and federal government.

Both could use a little more environmental consideration before charging forth with lease agreements, he said.

“It’s pretty clear to me that when Pennsylvania did a lot of its recent gas leases, it didn’t carefully consider where these gas wells would go,” he said.

The parallels go further than that, he said. The bureau now is considering leasing mineral rights it owns beneath state game lands for hydraulic fracturing.

On May 14, Szybist along with other environmental advocacy groups sent a 10-page letter to the bureau imploring them to again consider leasing rights to about 5,000 acres beneath state game lands in Bradford County.

The letter indicates, during its assessment, the bureau missed the mark when considering potential harm to valuable natural resources in the state forest.

The bureau’s environmental assessment, completed in April, for the proposed lands indicates that, while significant risks exist, harm to the environment can be mitigated with close attention to standards and proper well construction.