Many favor gas drilling on airport property
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Letting energy companies drill for natural gas near Pittsburgh International Airport seems like a good idea to several local political leaders.
They say they want to make sure, however, that any drilling is done safely and the money raised through leases benefits Allegheny County taxpayers.
County Executive Dan Onorato said Thursday that coming to terms on agreements for gas-exploration rights on county-owned land around the airport would be one of the major initiatives he would concentrate on during his remaining months in office. He does not plan to seek a third term.
His announcement of the leasing initiative was welcomed by members of county council from both parties.
"There is a revenue stream there that is worth pursuing," said Councilman Vince Gastgeb, R-Bethel Park, chairman of council's GOP caucus.
"This is absolutely a good idea," said council President Rich Fitzgerald, D-Squirrel Hill.
It may not be an easy idea to carry out. Any deals on mineral rights will involve multiple parties. The county owns about 9,000 acres of land in Findlay and Moon around Pittsburgh International Airport. The airport, however, is operated by an independent county authority and is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration.
While the Onorato administration can negotiate leases with private companies, the agreements would have to be approved by council and be acceptable to the airport authority and the FAA. Any resulting gas exploration projects also would have to be approved by municipal officials in Findlay or Moon.
Southwestern Pennsylvania is in the midst of a natural gas exploration boom. Companies have developed new ways to tap energy deposits a mile underground in a geologic layer known as Marcellus Shale. Local landowners have negotiated up-front payments of $4,000 or $5,000 per acre with royalties equal to as much as 20 percent of the value of the gas found. Mr. Onorato and County Council members say they want to make sure proceeds from airport-area leases go into county coffers.
FAA rules generally require that revenues collected on airport properties be used to benefit aviation projects, said Kevin Evanto, a spokesman for Mr. Onorato. "We want to see as much revenue as possible [from the leases] is returned to Allegheny County taxpayers, and we need to have that conversation with the FAA," he said.
No talks have been initiated on that topic. Jim Peters, a spokesman for the federal agency, said the FAA would have no comment on Mr. Onorato's proposal until officials see details of any leasing plans.
County officials said they were confident that agreements eventually could be reached with the FAA and the airport authority.
Mr. Gastgeb, however, doubted that any deals could be made final before Mr. Onorato leaves office in December. "We were talking about the feasibility of leases a year ago," he said. "[Mr. Onorato] waited too long to start this."
Mr. Gastgeb and his Republican colleague, Chuck McCullough of Upper St. Clair, both said the time is right for a broader look at airport operations and at the wisdom of having the facility operated by a separate authority. Under the old commissioners system, the airport was run by a county department of aviation.
Rather than just converting mineral rights into cash, the county should consider leasing the entire airport to a private company, Mr. McCullough said. While such privatization would be controversial, it offers the possibility of raising much larger sums for the county's treasury, he said.
County council has to approve all new uses of county property, Mr. Gastgeb said. "Don't bring us anything at the 11th hour," he warned. "We want to be at the negotiating table with the rest of the stakeholders."
The more than 5,000 acres of county-owned property in Findlay are zoned for heavy industry, and drilling for natural gas is a conditional use in that district. With proper environmental safeguards in place, energy exploration in that area likely would be acceptable to municipal officials, said Chris Caruso, Findlay's assistant manager and planning director.
"Natural gas exploration is a good idea for Western Pennsylvania as long as it is regulated," he said.
The land around the airport is a good location for drilling efforts, Mr. Fitzgerald said. The land proposed for leasing is not occupied by runways and terminals, he said. Mineral rights have been retained by the county and have nothing to do with airport operations.
Any new money generated from exploration and gas production should go to the county and be used to support its operations and head off any tax increases or cuts in service, he said.
First Published January 17, 2011 12:00 am