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Drilling resumes in Allegheny National Forest

The oil and gas industry has resumed drilling in the 512,000-acre Allegheny National Forest while several court challenges against the practice work their way through the federal courts, an industry lawyer said on Tuesday.

Matthew Wolford, an attorney representing the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association and the Allegheny Forest Alliance, said an Erie federal judge's December 2009 order made it clear that companies don't need the U.S. Forest Service's permission to drill.

"That's been the law in Pennsylvania for over 100 years," Wolford said.

Joe Walsh, a national spokesman for the Forest Service, declined to comment.

U.S. District Judge Sean McLaughlin's ruling cleared the way for drilling but didn't stop the agency stall tactics, Wolford said.

When a company plans to drill in the forest, it must give the agency notice. The Forest Service is supposed to respond to those notices within 60 days but is taking seven to eight months, he said.

"That gets a little bit old, as you can imagine," Wolford said.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in September upheld McLaughlin's ruling, which allowed other legal challenges to move forward. Industry and environmental groups have filed seven federal lawsuits since 2007 challenging how drilling is conducted in the national forest.

The groups that Wolford represents filed a lawsuit in 2008 to throw out the Forest Service's 2007 management plan for the forest, which governs land and resource use. The agency imposed new requirements and restrictions on drilling operations.

The Forest Service previously argued that McLaughlin shouldn't throw out the plan because the agency was trying to correct its deficiencies. The Justice Department attorney representing the agency in the lawsuit didn't return calls.

The industry filed a brief Monday, arguing that the plan is 5 years old and the agency hasn't been able to fix it in the past four years.

"We think the appropriate remedy is to start over," Wolford said.

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