Oil and gas drillers in Pennsylvania predict environmental studies required by the federal government to tap into reserves under the Allegheny National Forest would effectively halt the more-than-a-century-old drilling operations there.

A recent settlement of a lawsuit by environmentalists against the Forest Service requires environmental analysis of drilling projects under the federal National Environmental Protection Act.

But the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Association, Minard Run Oil Co., and Warren County sued the U.S. Forest Service and several environmental groups Tuesday seeking to lift the requirement.

Steve Rhoads, association president, said Wednesday the federal agency was overstepping its bounds and maintained the Forest Service does not have legal authority to require the study because the agency doesn't own the mineral rights to the resources under Pennsylvania's only national forest.

"NEPA got into this because the Forest Service is looking for some kind of a hook to get into regulating oil and gas, which they have no right to do," he said.

The 800-square-mile forest lies in Elk, Forest, McKean and Warren counties. The Forest Service estimates some 11,000 to 12,000 oil and gas wells are in production in the Allegheny.

While the federal government owns the forestland, it didn't buy the mineral rights when the forest was created nearly 90 years ago. More than 90 percent of the rights to underground minerals are privately owned.

"They own the oil and gas, and they're being told they have to wait for years to access what you own," said Matthew Wolford, an attorney for Minard Run Oil.

Rhoads said the Forest Service was inappropriately making the case that it can require NEPA because it acknowledges drilling projects by issuing a notice to proceed.

"They're trying to call that a federal action and bootstrap NEPA into it," he said.

Industry officials say they must only abide by Pennsylvania law and give 60 days' notice to the Forest Service of their intent to drill.

Andrew Ames, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice, said it would respond to the industry's arguments in court on behalf of the Forest Service. Ryan Talbott of the Allegheny Defense Project, which also was named as a defendant, said the industry was trying to muzzle public participation in forest management.

The suit is the latest of several filed concerning oil and gas drilling in the Allegheny.

"Instead of filing frivolous, duplicative lawsuits that discourage public participation, the oil and gas industry should be working with the Forest Service and the public to ensure that the forests and watersheds of Pennsylvania's only national forest are protected," he said.