Thompson Hearing Audits Energy, Forestry Programs, Discusses ANF Drilling Permit Delays

July 22, 2011
Press Release

Washington, D.C. – Representative Glenn 'GT' Thompson, Chairman of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Energy, and Forestry, this Wednesday held a public hearing to review energy and forestry programs within the subcommittee's jurisdiction. The hearing was a continuation in the series of audit hearings the subcommittee is holding to review programs in advance of writing the next farm bill. 

“In a difficult fiscal environment, we must make efficient use of taxpayer dollars while ensuring agricultural interests remain competitive and are able to offer an affordable supply of both domestic food and energy,” said Thompson.

The 2002 Farm Bill included for the first time energy related provisions to foster the development of more feed stocks for the development of renewable energy in rural America. Funding for these programs are set to expire at the end of September 2012.

“This hearing provides us a baseline to determine which programs are effective, which are in need of reform, and what changes must be made to ensure healthy, diverse and productive forests,” Thompson added. “The information shared today brings us a step closer to understanding the committee's priorities as we draft these new titles and move forward with the next farm bill.”

The portions of the farm bill which address forestry primarily include programs under the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) that assist state and private landowners with management of their forestry lands.  Other programs utilize federal funding to purchase forest land for conservation.  All forestry programs are permanently authorized and subject to annual appropriations in order to receive operating funds.  

Thompson’s subcommittee took testimony from top officials with the Farm Service Agency, the Rural Business Cooperative Service, and the USFS. Representing the USFS was Chief Tom Tidwell. Thompson questioned Tidwell on recent claims that the USFS is delaying the permit process for natural gas drilling in the Allegheny National Forest (ANF). Last Friday, Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association (PIOGA) asked a federal judge to find the USFS in contempt for unreasonable delays for drilling permit notices. 

Specifically, Thompson asked if Chief Tidwell could explain the delays of these permit notices. “I’ve been hearing a lot of concern from my constituents about the unreasonably long periods of time before the Forest Service issues notices to proceed with natural gas production in the ANF,” said Thompson. 

In response, Tidwell stated, “With the processing of the permits, we’re actually making progress.  We’re not where we would like to be as far as the length of time. I think even a year ago it was taking almost five to five-and-a-half months and we’re now down to an average of four.”  In meeting a 2009 preliminary injunction issued by Federal Judge Sean McLaughlin, the USFS was instructed that a period of 60 days is a “reasonable time” for issuing notices to proceed.

Additionally, Chief Tidwell stated that ensuring water quality may also now be a factor contributing to the delays. “The issue with ground water, it’s not part of the process application, it’s more of a concern with the ground water and the quality of that ground water.” Tidwell added, “This is a new issue that has just recently come forward, that we weren’t dealing with in previous permits. We’re going to need to work with the industry, work with the applicants, and find a way to move forward with this.”

Thompson was surprised that the Forest Service Chief would define a well established process as a “new issue.” In Friday’s court filing, PIOGA indicated that the practice of using ground and surface water for drilling in the ANF has been going on for decades. 

A key point made by Judge McLaughlin in the 2009 preliminary injunction was that the USFS only holds the subsurface rights of 7% of the ANF, while 93% are owned by the private sector. Thompson remains committed to working with the USFS, state and local officials, industry and other partners to improve the current permitting process to ensure that local communities continue to reap the economic and ecological resources provided through the ANF. 

To view the full testimony from the hearing, click here.

To view Rep. Thompson’s exchange with USFS Chief Tom Tidwell, click here.