The battle over drilling in remote state forest lands of Lycoming County that environmentalists are fighting to preserve for future generations apparently is far from settled.
The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources announced Wednesday that negotiations with two gas companies seeking to extract natural gas from Loyalsock State Forest are continuing.
The agency indicated it now is seeking public comment once a draft Surface Development Management Agreement has been negotiated with Anadarko Petroleum Corp. and Southwest Energy Co., which own 50 percent of the subsurface rights to the tract known as Clarence Moore lands.
State Rep. Rick Mirabito, D-Williamsport, said he's pleased that DCNR is seeking public comment.
"I think it's an important victory," he said.
The lawmaker said he would have liked to have seen DCNR establish a 30-day rather than just a 15-day comment period for responding to the agreement.
Nevertheless, he said the public now has yet another chance to respond to the issue.
Mirabito noted that DCNR's decision comes just two days after he hosted a meeting at Lycoming College seeking feedback on the matter.
"This is a work in progress," said Anadarko spokeswoman Mary Wolf when reached Wednesday.
Wolf offered no further comment other than to respond that the company will continue to work with DCNR to come up with some type of agreement.
No deadline has been set for completion of the draft, according to DCNR officials.
However, once completed, the state agency will allow for the 15-day public comment period.
DCNR officials have stated that the Surface Development Management Agreement will protect state assets on the surface "while outlining reasonable infrastructure development to extract natural gas.
Drilling opponents have argued that a provision in the deed of the 25,000-acre Clarence Moore tract grants the state surface control over 18,870 acres.
That has long raised the whole question over access to the mineral rights.
"Because we do not own any of the subsurface rights on the 25,000 acres, we believe we can strongly influence and minimize the surface impacts, but have to provide access to the owners," said DCNR spokeswoman Chris Novak. "That's our approach moving forward."
DCNR Secretary Ellen Ferretti said the main focus is to protect the resources.
"That is our mission. It's our job to balance the protection of habitat and recreational resources such as the Old Logger's Path with the various uses of the state forest, including gas extraction," she said.
It includes minimizing surface disturbance; limiting impacts on the Old Logger's Path which encircles the land; reducing fragmentation from pipelines and roads; avoiding or minimizing activity in wetland areas important for habitat; avoiding or minimizing development in the headwaters of Rock Run; and mitigating noise from compressor stations.
Mirabito acknowledged that drilling could well occur some day in Loyalsock State Forest.
"The point is that perhaps there are ways to minimize what will happen," he said. "Every bit helps."
He noted that technology for drilling is forever improving and delaying such activity on public lands can perhaps mean less impact down the road.