“Rock oil” was already known at the time, but George Bissell had the idea of using it for kerosene, and sent his business partner, “Colonel” Edwin Drake, to Titusville, Pennsylvania to drill for it. Drake’s Well struck oil on 27 August 1859 to become the world’s first commercial oil well. Rock oil—better known by the Greek petroleum, or simply “oil”—has become the primary fuel of transportation. We’ve become addicted to it, an addiction that began on the cusp of the Allegheny National Forest. Today, the forest remains in a productive oil region. It produces more oil and natural gas than all other national forests combined, and like any other place where oil’s been struck, we’re more than happy to kill every living thing in our path to get to it.
The greatest, swiftest most efficient and most appalling wave of forest destruction in human history was swelling to its climax in the United States. Nobody knew how much timberland we had left and nobody cared. We were still a nation of pioneers. The world was all before us, and there would always be plenty of everything for everybody.
So wrote Gifford Pinchot, two-term governor of Pennsylvania, personal friend of Theodore Roosevelt, and the man most responsible for the creation of the U.S. Forest Service, in his memoirs about the deforestation of the Allegheny. Much of that came from the wood chemicals industries, tanning and others that logged the forest, but much of it also came from Pennsylvania’s oil boom. Some of the small towns of northwestern Pennsylvania boomed with a sudden flux of prosperity, but meanwhile, the rush for oil that began with Drake’s Well in 1859 wiped out the forest.
Before Texas or the Middle East, Pennsylvania was the site of the world’s first oil boom, and it was the Allegheny that bore the brunt of the cost. “Quaker State” and “Pennzoil” harken back to the origins of the oil industry on the Allegheny’s doorstep. Reduced to the “Allegheny Brush Heap” by oilmen and loggers, the watershed of the Allegheny River suffered, leading to floods in Pittsburgh. Pennsylvania peaked as an oil region in 1891, with a second, smaller peak in 1937. What oil still remains in Pennsylvania’s oil wells is deeper, heavier, more sour, and not under pressure. It takes more money to extract and refine. But with the price of oil rising from our dependence on foreign, unstable supplies, many of the wells in the Allegheny National Forest have become worth revisiting, leading to a more recent “bump” in oil production.
What’s going on atop Pennsylvania’s northwestern plateau is an oil and gas boom that is among the biggest since 1859 when Edwin Drake drilled the well that launched the modern oil industry in Venango County, south of Titusville.
The DEP issued a record 3,775 oil and gas well drilling permits in 2006, a 24 percent increase over the 3,044 granted in 2005, which was previously the record year for issuance of oil and gas well permits.
“Over the last five years we’ve been in an upward spiral of oil and gas permits,” said Freda Tarbell, a DEP spokeswoman, who noted that the regional office added two new enforcement officers in the past year to an overworked force that now totals 17 working in 27 northern counties.
More than 1,000 of the wells drilled in that region last year were sunk in the Allegheny National Forest. More than 8,000 active wells are operating in the forest, and federal forest officials expect 1,200 additional wells there this year.1
It appears that the position has become sufficiently lucrative that oil wells in the Allegheny have become an attractive option for drug-runners to dump their money.
Drug cartels and financiers of terrorism have been known to hide their assets in a wide variety of ways, including commercial real estate, insurance policies, gold and diamonds, but the officials said this case was the first in which they had found evidence of oil wells being used to launder money. The federal government now becomes the temporary owner of the wells, which are in the Allegheny National Forest in a region that in the 1860’s became the country’s first major oil producer.2
To understand the current situation, we need to look back to the effects of the first oil boom, when the “Allegheny Brush Heap” was all that left once the boom-and-bust of rich oilmen had swelled local towns with dreams of opulence, and then left them as ghost towns.
From top to bottom: Mineral rights, oil fields, and oil and natural gas wells drilled in the Allegheny National Forest since 1986. All maps from Appendix F of the Forest Service’s Forest Plan Revision. [PDF]
Largely because of the flooding in Pittsburgh, Coolidge turned the Allegheny into a national forest in 1923, in order to produce a forest to protect the Allegheny River’s watershed. But to do so, the government bought only the surface rights—the mineral rights remain, overwhelmingly, private property. This is unique in the national forest system, and due in no small part to the mineral wealth the Allegheny sits on. The forest sits on a plateau that juts out of the Appalachian Mountains, the oldest mountain chain in the world. Eons ago, it was the home of an enormous rain forest—a verdant jungle that died to become the oil, natural gas and coal that now lies underneath so much of Penn’s Woods. For the most part, the Forest Service has been a willing accomplice. The Allegheny National Forest is currently the site of over 8,000 oil & natural gas wells, and the old, unrevised forest plan called for 7,500 more. The access roads cut through the forest with the density of some small cities, and the old plan called for 1,600 more miles of road to reach all the new wells, with 10,000 acres of forest to be cleared in the process. The new revision and other recent actions on the Forest Service’s part actually provide some cause for optimism, though.
“The most change in the plan is in our direction on oil and gas,” Mr. Connelly said. “We want to do a better job working with the oil and gas firms on well siting so that there is the least impact on surface values.”
In what may be a precursor of that new direction, the Forest Service filed an official objection in January to an application to drill four oil and gas wells on and near the 4,600-mile North Country Trail in McKean County. In February it filed another objection to a proposal to drill five wells along state Route 59 in Warren County, designated the Longhouse National Scenic Byway.
The official objections to oil and gas development permit proposals are the first ever filed by federal officials in the Allegheny, where the mineral or subsurface rights under 93 percent of the forest are owned by individuals and oil and gas companies.3
Even so, the revised plan still subsidizes oil and gas companies by providing free stone for access roads, and offering experts to help companies develop plans that should cost the companies themselves. Such federal assistance is what makes it worthwhile to drill thoroughly peaked fields: they help reduce the actual cost of drilling by moving more of the cost to tax-payers.
That said, the new revision provides the best reason for hope yet: it outlines a goal for the Forest Service to buy up the subsurface rights below the Allegheny, the single biggest reason why oil companies are still permitted to rip through the forest and tear apart its ecological viability with such a dense mesh of access roads, and poison the entire forest with endemic leaks and spills.
Oil-related spills and leakage introduce toxins such as benzene, toluene, and xylene into forest streams. The EPA has characterized northwestern Pennsylvania as having a chronic oil spill situation resulting from thousands of wells, tanks, and brine ponds. Likewise, natural gas pipelines can have serious leaks that go without notice for months. These spills threaten the drinking water of local residents, the streams used by trout fishing enthusiasts, popular hiking trails, and core wildlife habitat with little to no oversight. In addition, roads and well pads fragment habitat and contribute sediment to streams.4
As global peak oil continues, the price of oil and natural gas will only continue to rise. Without increasing social pressure to make it more costly for oil and gas companies to denude and poison our home, there may not be much hope of avoiding a new “Brush Heap.” Fortunately, there is some cause for optimism. Perhaps for the first time in the Allegheny, the Forest Service is beginning to step up to defend it. It’s not enough, but it’s a start. What “black gold” is left beneath the Allegheny marks it as a target—and makes it all the more crucial for us to defend it.