Tap the gas under Deer Lakes

Allegheny County can bean energy leader while protecting the environment

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To drill or not to drill?

It’s a mistake to think that’s the only question at stake in the recent debate about the proposed gas lease between Allegheny County and Range Resources and Huntley & Huntley to allow shale gas extraction underneath Deer Lakes Park.

The real question is whether Allegheny County wants to be a leader in energy or a bystander.

The proposed lease at Deer Lakes Park is the only the second significant move by Allegheny County to take advantage of the vast shale gas resources upon which the county sits. The lease is unprecedented in Pennsylvania in many ways, including its stringent safety, environmental and community health precautions.

The lease forbids drilling on any surface area of the park, requiring drillers to build their platforms on privately owned land. The lease requires drillers to regularly test the water within 3,500 feet of each well, which is 1,000 feet beyond Pennsylvania requirements. The lease contains strict provisions for minimizing inconvenience to local residents in terms of traffic, light pollution and noise. The lease also sets strict safety standards, including requiring automatic shut-off valves on all wells and requiring a well-control expert to be on site at all times during operation.

The deal will bring a $4.7 million bonus payment into Allegheny County, an additional $3 million to directly benefit county parks and annual royalties estimated at $3 million. Allegheny County residents will be given preference to fill jobs created by the project.

The proposed lease closely follows the recommendations to encourage environmentally and fiscally responsible shale-gas development and practices created by the Allegheny County Vision Team on Energy & Environment, of which I served as chair. The vision team comprised experts with backgrounds in environmental protection, consumer advocacy, energy research and oil and gas policy and law. The county charged our team with looking for energy opportunities that would provide economic growth in our region while protecting our environment. The full version of our report can be found on the Allegheny County website.

The use and extraction of natural gas plays a major role in the report the Energy & Environment Vision team produced for the county. Natural gas burns cleaner, emits less carbon and is safer and easier to transport and store than other fossil fuels. We advocate that Allegheny County shifts to natural gas power sources where possible. And because we have abundant stores of shale gas in Western Pennsylvania, increasing the demand for natural gas helps to create local jobs, improve energy self-sufficiency, and keep heating and electricity costs low for local residents.

Of course, there are risks to drilling for gas. The community is right to demand that county leases require drilling companies to use the best possible practices to minimize any impact on the environment and health of residents. The proposed lease is extremely cautious in regard to safety and the environment. This proposed lease holds the County, Range Resources and Huntley & Huntley accountable for following all precautions set forth in the lease.

But we should keep in mind that no energy source is without risk. Even wind and solar generated electricity, an important component of the Energy & Environment Vision Team’s plan, are not without issues. For example, most wind turbines and photovoltaic cells used in solar panels are made from rare earth minerals that are mined almost exclusively in China, often using methods that are tremendously detrimental to the environment. Many of the materials in wind turbines and solar panels require a lot of energy to manufacture and are extremely hazardous to the environment if not properly recycled or disposed. And the biggest issue of all is that neither technology is currently capable of creating and storing enough electricity to meet our full needs.

No single energy source can solve the energy crisis facing not only Allegheny County, but the rest of our commonwealth, nation and world. The best and most prudent solution is to follow a plan that relies on a diverse range of power sources — including solar, wind and natural gas.

Allegheny County must make a choice. We can ignore the opportunity presented by our natural gas resources and rely solely on other areas to produce the energy we need without any control over it. Or Allegheny County can be a leader in solving the energy crisis by leveraging our natural resources in a way that benefits our citizens, protects the environment and the health of our residents and builds our economy.

Andrea Geraghty, an attorney at Meyer, Unkovic & Scott, served as voluntary chair of the Allegheny County Energy & Environment Vision Team.

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