Drill, carefully, drill: The county must meet the natural gas challenge

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Drilling for natural gas through hydraulic fracturing of deep-seated rock — known as fracking — has brought to Western Pennsylvania the prospect of such an economic bonanza not seen since coal was king.

But the communal memory of coal as a blessing for jobs and a curse to the environment has made the new era of fracking controversial. Although some want to impose moratoriums or outright bans on drilling, public officials are better advised to remember the lessons of history while securing the economic promise of the future.

In short, any policy must recognize that Pennsylvanians need jobs and they need clean water and air. As it happens, recent stories in the Post-Gazette speak to both parts of this balancing act.

On Sunday, the Post-Gazette reported that Allegheny County stands to receive $3.5 million in signing bonuses to lease the land under Deer Lakes Park for gas drilling and perhaps more than $70 million in royalty payments. These figures come from documents obtained from Range Resources, which together with driller Huntley & Huntley last month forwarded a proposal to County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

Even allowing for the fact that the size of royalties depends on such factors as the availability of infrastructure, the money being offered is an attractive deal for taxpayers — if the drilling can be done in a way sensitive to the park.

In that regard, there’s reason to hope. The drilling would be done horizontally from sites outside the park’s boundaries. Already wells have been constructed in the park’s surrounding area without obvious problems. And, in a display of due diligence, Mr. Fitzgerald visited Cross Creek Park in Washington County to learn from its experience with drilling.

Allegheny County Council can do its bit to allay residents’ fears concerning drilling and the environment when it meets Tuesday evening. It will consider new reporting requirements for natural gas companies, requiring them to notify the county Health Department when certain production milestones are met.

Philadelphia and Allegheny County are the only entities in the state to regulate air quality locally. So it is reasonable to give the health department’s air quality inspectors the same notifications that go to the state, the better to do more air monitoring locally, if it seems best in an area with greater population density.

Drill, baby, drill shouldn’t be the mantra, especially in parks, but drill, carefully, drill makes sense.

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