The U.S. Forest Service is moving forward on 54 oil and gas drilling proposals.
So far, two notices to proceed have been issued by Allegheny National Forest (ANF) Supervisor Leanne Marten.
Two might not seem like a lot, but they are the first two notices issued since a Forest Service decision in January moved all drilling proposal considerations to the regional office in Milwaukee.
In the terms of a settlement agreement between the Forest Service and three environmental groups that had sued it, those packages get to move forward without undergoing National Environmental Policy Act analysis.
All subsequent proposals will have to wait.
Although the settlement agreement has not been approved by a judge, it hasn't been rejected, either.
"We're moving ahead until we're told otherwise," ANF Spokesperson Kathy Mohney said. "That is what we had committed to doing."
ANF officials have said they intend to issue notices for all 54 packages proposed by 22 companies in a little more than a month.
"We have issued two so far," Mohney said.
Marten announced at recent public meetings that she had "diverted resources" to making sure the oil and gas proposals can be handled quickly.
Forest Service personnel have been reassigned and some seasonal hires have taken on their duties to boost the oil and gas department while maintaining other functions, Marten said.
"We've issued two, we've got resources committed full-time to making all 54 approved by May 31," Mohney said.
"We have all the resources working on it and we're working as hard as we can," she said. "We're going to do our part."
That leaves some work up to the developers.
The 22 operators must pay all fees associated with their drilling projects. Disruption of the surface results in those companies having to pay for timber that is cut and roads that are built.
The 54 packages represent a sizable body of work - 588 wells, two pipelines, and a seismic line.
The total number of wells is a drop from the last few years when the price of oil reached record highs, but double the number of new wells built each year early this decade.
Mohney said there were 5,168 new wells approved from 2000 to 2008.
Most of those came in the last four years. From 2005 to 2008, 3,726 of those wells were approved - about 930 a year. "It increases as the market prices of oil and gas climb," Mohney said.
From 2000 to 2004, the average was 288 new well approvals.