Allegheny County considers drilling beneath parks

Deer Lakes Park is the first to be negotiated in deal

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Allegheny County is mulling over drilling for natural gas underneath at least one county park, a county councilman says.

County executive Rich Fitzgerald has held discussions with local firm Huntley & Huntley, Inc., a partner with energy giant Range Resources, councilman Nick Futules said Wednesday. The company is primarily interested in Deer Lakes Park, an 1,180-acre wooded area in West Deer and Frazer townships.

"They're having a conversation with the county executive over any future possibilities," said Mr. Futules, who is chairman of the council's parks committee. "They're in negotiations now, I imagine."

Any extraction would take place outside park grounds, with a external well pad drilling horizontally underneath the park, he said.

Huntley & Huntley, a century-old Monroeville engineering firm that has branched into shale in recent years, has systematically leased out much of the land surrounding Deer Lakes Park. Since Jan. 1, it has signed nearly two dozen new leases in bordering townships.

Company executives say they've partnered with Range to do the actual drilling; the larger company also has several leases in the area.

On May 24, Range secured permits to drill three wells off Fairfield Road in Frazer, less than 1,000 feet away from the park, according to state records.

"The drilling is going to go on around these parks with or without the parks," said Michael Hillebrand, Huntley & Huntley's executive vice president. "We just don't want a resource wasted that's sitting under these county properties. All these officials would need to say is, 'Yeah, we want the park to be included.' "

Mr. Fitzgerald wouldn't admit to meeting with Range or Huntley & Huntley, saying he won't discuss private business meetings. But as far as he's concerned, any county property should be considered for drilling. And if a county park sees development, he thinks a portion of the proceeds should go to its maintenance.

"If we're drilling in Settlers Cabin, I think most of the money that was earmarked for parks should go towards that particular park," he said. "Those are the folks who would be putting up with any inconvenience."

Any landman worth his salt looked on county land with added interest after this spring, when the Allegheny County Airport Authority opened 9,000 acres surrounding Pittsburgh International Airport to drilling. Such a large block is rarely available, and the possibility the county would be open to further development at large public sites has perked up ears.

Some parks are not up for grabs, Mr. Hillebrand said. For instance, he believes North Park and South Park have too many homes nearby, meaning any driller would have to make the politically difficult pitch to pave a pad on park grounds.

But his company sees opportunity at Round Hill Park, which stretches across 1,101 acres in Elizabeth Township. Since January, Huntley & Huntley has signed more than 10 leases bordering the park.

Any decision regarding the parks will be run by Mr. Futules and the members of his committee, Mr. Fitzgerald said. He'd also have to get council's permission before signing any lease.

The county is still nowhere near having a deal, he said.

"People are looking at it. I know council is interested in it," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "A lot of it will come down to how much money it will be worth to the county."

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Andrew McGill: or 412-263-1497.


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