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County council votes to allow gas drilling at airport

| Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013, 7:42 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband
Katheryn Hilton of Donegal and Jesse Ondrusek of Beaver express their opposition to an ordinance authorizing a lease of mineral rights on Allegheny county property at the Pittsburgh International Airport during a county council meeting, Downtown. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Jasmine Goldband
Tess Zangrilli, of Oakland and Joni Rabinowitz of Park Place express their opposition to an ordinance authorizing a lease of mineral rights on Allegheny county property at the Pittsburgh International Airport during a county council meeting, Downtown. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Jasmine Goldband
Kenneth Weir of Lincoln Place speaks to Allegheny county council in opposition of an ordinance authorizing a lease of mineral rights on Allegheny county property at the Pittsburgh International Airport during a county council meeting, Downtown. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review

Allegheny County Council will allow gas drilling at Pittsburgh International Airport, voting Tuesday night to approve a lease with Consol Energy that county officials have said might be worth $500 million.

Council voted 9-4 with one abstention. Drilling would start no earlier than late 2014 in six to eight locations around the perimeter of the Findlay airport, officials have said.

Federal rules require the money to stay at the airport, where officials want to use it to upgrade airport-controlled land for more commerce and office developments.

“The deal is not without risk. We obviously will get on the property as soon as this gets official” to do seismic testing, said Tommy Johnson, Consol's vice president of government and public relations, after the vote. “We may find that ($500 million) number is higher based on production.”

Cecil-based Consol will pay the county $50 million in about a month, when officials sign the contracts. That money includes $5,000 per acre in an up-front bonus and a $3.7 million surface rent payment for well pads. The rest of the money would come from royalty payments of 18 percent that start when gas production does.

“I think it's extremely momentous. It shows there is support for this industry,” said Robert J. Macey, D-West Mifflin, who shepherded the bill through committee.

About a dozen protesters heckled or cheered speakers during nearly two hours of comments and debate leading to the vote. Some held signs decrying environmental threats from drilling and the relationships between the industry and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who pleaded for industry leaders to donate to his 2011 election campaign.

Fitzgerald plans to sign the bill as soon as council gets it to him, one of his staffers said.

“While the revenues from this deal will go directly to the airport, Allegheny County taxpayers benefit, too,” Fitzgerald said in a statement touting the deal's potential to lower airline costs and boost business in the neighboring suburbs. “With this type of investment, there will be even more growth of good, family-sustaining jobs in our community.”

Anti-drilling activist Mel Packer criticized county leaders for their estimates of the deal's payout to the airport. Fitzgerald said last month that the deal would net $4 million to $6 million a year in royalties from gas production. Two weeks later, he said more thorough estimates showed likely income of more than $22 million a year for 20 years.

“All you have to do is look at any business page to see that $500 million figure is an absolute lie,” Packer said, noting how a glut of gas has led to low commodity prices, an industry slowdown and long-term questions about when the price of gas will rise again.

Democrats James Burn Jr. of Millvale, Barbara Daly Danko of Regent Square, Amanda Green Hawkins of Stanton Heights and William Russell Robinson of the Hill District voted against the lease, citing concerns about environmental risks, who would get the jobs and whether the county got the best deal possible.

Republican Heather S. Heidelbaugh of Mt. Lebanon abstained to avoid a conflict of interest because her law firm does work for Consol, she said.

Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or tpuko@tribweb.com.

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