Residents turn out to learn about drilling plans at airport

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Let no one say Consol Energy Inc. can't pack a room.

On Tuesday, visitors at the Pittsburgh Airport Marriott couldn't walk 5 feet without bumping into another red-shirted representative of the Cecil-based company, eager to explain how drilling for natural gas at Pittsburgh International Airport would yield hundreds of millions of dollars in development.

They even outnumbered the reporters.

But while few visitors were dead-set against the plan, not many seemed ready to throw in their full-fledged support, either.

Roy McMahon and his father, James, pored over an aerial map of the proposed drilling. That's their Findlay neighborhood, they decided, pointing at a small cul-de-sac close to the airport property's border.

They attended the energy company's first open meeting a few months ago, before the drilling contract between Consol and the Allegheny County Airport Authority was signed. Then, as now, they felt a bit like outsiders to the deal.

"It was already set -- chiseled in stone," Roy McMahon said. "I just wanted to see where it's going to be. If you get this close to a residential area, you'd better not have issues."

"There's nothing we can do about it," his father chimed in. "They already passed it."

A Consol representative hovered nearby and appeared about to jump in, but left to greet an entering couple.

The company plans to bore at least 47 wells from six drilling pads at the airport's 9,000 acres, sending a spiderweb of piping underneath runways. The price tag: $500 million, not including the $50 million bonus already paid to the Allegheny County Airport Authority and the $450 million Consol expects to pay the authority in royalties.

Though the Federal Aviation Administration has yet to approve the plan, Consol says gas could begin flowing by 2015.

At Tuesday's open house, the energy company put up poster-sized maps of the drilling plan, along with booths where company staffers addressed questions such as the construction timeline, environmental impact and well construction.

Bill Ehrlich listened in on a discussion at one booth, watching a Consol rep gamely try to explain noise levels to a group of residents worried about the serenity of their backyards.

Mr. Ehrlich is in an unusual position: Not completely sold on the safety of drilling, he has nonetheless leased his Findlay farm's mineral rights to Consol competitor Range Resources.

"We thought long and hard about it," he said. "You're in a Catch-22. The way they drill, it's my opinion they're going to get the gas whether you sign or not."

And he doesn't have any illusions about Consol's well-meaning employees: "You listen to these people, and it all sounds super," he said.

Richard Evanko, meanwhile, is less suspicious. The Moon resident owns a stake in a small golf course directly north of the airport and eagerly awaits the development, which he said will be "good for the county and good for the rest of the country."

Looking around, Mr. Evanko had nothing but compliments for his new Consol neighbors.

"You can see the attitude and friendliness of everyone in here," he said. "I haven't had any question they couldn't answer."

He is hoping to get a lease offer from Consol.

marcellusshale - neigh_west

Andrew McGill: or 412-263-1497.


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