Allegheny County considers stricter gas drilling controls at airport land


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Allegheny County Council will move cautiously on a proposal to place stricter local controls on where natural gas wells can be drilled at Pittsburgh International Airport.

Members of council's Committee on Economic Development & Housing recently discussed but took no action on an ordinance that would increase buffer areas around drilling platforms and compressor stations.

The measure, proposed by Councilman Michael Finnerty, D-Scott, would require natural-resource companies to keep their facilities at least 1,000 feet from a house or school and 500 feet from a permanent water source, such as a pond, lake, river or stream.

Mr. Finnerty's ordinance is one of two proposals coming before council that deal with drilling for natural gas.

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald on Friday proposed legislation that would authorize an impact fee on Marcellus Shale natural-gas wells across the county. Council will get its first look at the measure on Tuesday.

The new fees he proposed are permitted under state Act 13, which was passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Tom Corbett last month.

Funds made available through Act 13 could cover a range of items, including road, bridge, water, storm water and sewer projects. The money also could be used for public safety expenses, environmental programs and tax reductions, including homestead exclusions.

To make the county eligible to collect funds under the new law, council must act by April 16.

The setback restrictions in Mr. Finnerty's proposal would apply only to gas-drilling projects on county-owned land. Both former county Executive Dan Onorato and Mr. Fitzgerald have indicated their support for such efforts at Pittsburgh International Airport. The county owns about 9,000 acres around the airport in Findlay and Moon. The airport itself is operated by an independent authority.

Southwestern Pennsylvania has become a target for international energy companies interested in "fracking" deep underground to release natural gas deposits in the Marcellus Shale layer. Fracking involves injecting a mixture of water and chemicals into layers of rock.

Mr. Finnerty compared his buffer proposals to conditions in a contract that any private landowner might require. The buffer zones in his bill are wider than those called for in Act 13. The law allows counties to impose impact fees on new wells but pre-empts local regulation of drilling. Council solicitor John Cambest will be asked to review Mr. Finnerty's proposal to determine whether it conflicts with state law.

Randy Forister, senior director of development for the Allegheny County Airport Authority, brought along maps of the property that showed where drilling might be possible without interfering with airport operations.

Among other issues that would have to be resolved is how proceeds from any Marcellus Shale drilling contracts on airport property would be distributed. The airport is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, which generally requires that revenues collected on airport land be used to benefit aviation.

Some council members have argued that the agreements between the county and the airport authority do not mention transfer of mineral rights.

Mr. Fitzgerald said Friday that he continues to favor the idea of drilling for natural gas at the airport, which would provide a new source of non-tax revenue for the county. Much of the area is industrial land and includes former coal mines.

Carefully regulated mineral extraction might actually improve overall environmental conditions on parts of the site, he said.

Proponents say Marcellus Shale gas could provide an economic boom for the region, help make the United States less dependent on foreign oil and provide environmental benefits. Natural gas burns more cleanly than other fossil fuels.

Opponents warn of environmental dangers from the chemicals used in fracking, from industrial accidents and from pollution of underground water supplies.

When council held a hearing on the topic a year ago, more than 100 speakers filled the Gold Room of the county courthouse to argue for and against drilling in the county.


Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159.


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