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Consol Energy to reduce air pollution of airport drilling with electric engines

| Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013, 3:42 p.m.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Joe Zoka, general manager for Central Pennsylvania Gas Operations for Consol, Brad Penrod, president of the Allegheny County Airport Authority, and Congressman Tim Murphy, from left, listen as Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald speaks at the Marriott in Moon, Tuesday, December 17, 2013, about oil and gas development at the Pittsburgh International Airport.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Joe Zoka, general manager for Central Pennsylvania Gas Operations for Consol speaks at the Marriott in Moon, Tuesday, December 17, 2013, about oil and gas development at the Pittsburgh International Airport. Behind Zoka is Allegheny County Executive, Rich Fitzgerald.

Consol Energy Inc. plans to be the first driller to use electric engines on a Marcellus shale gas site to comply with strict federal air pollution limits for drilling at Pittsburgh International Airport, company officials announced Tuesday.

“This is a showcase project, and we're treating it as such,” said Joe Zoka, general manager at Consol. “In the grand scheme of things, it wasn't a difficult decision.”

Drilling could bring $500 million in fees and gas royalties to the Allegheny County Airport Authority, but the plans must pass federal scrutiny because the government subsidizes airport operations. Consol submitted a draft environmental impact assessment to four federal agencies Nov. 18.

Company officials told reporters, airport property neighbors and others that they don't anticipate problems from the six well pads they plan to clear on the airport's perimeter. That's because, in part, of the company's unique precautions, officials said.

The biggest is the switch to electric engines for all the rig equipment, which was a critical innovation, said Katharine Fredriksen, who oversees Consol's environmental strategy and regulatory affairs.

The typical diesel engines — and cleaner-burning engines that run on natural gas — would emit too much air pollution, she said.

That's because the county has long been out of compliance with federal air pollution limits, a status that puts more requirements on new, large polluters.

Consol predicts its airport operation will come closest to the pollution limits in the second year of drilling, producing an estimated 85.17 tons of ground level ozone-causing nitrogen oxides. So-called NOx is one of several pollutants that's limited to 100 tons per year. Using the electric rig engines cuts nearly three tons of NOx pollution per well, which would have been enough to exceed the threshold, Consol officials said.

Well site construction should begin in the spring and drilling should start in the fall, Consol said. Four to 4½ years of drilling and hydrofracturing, or fracking, would follow.

To meet its goals, the company is urging suppliers to speed production of some electric engines needed to finish some wells by 2016, Fredriksen said.

It's reliant on the electric supply nearby, something that isn't common in other, remote drilling areas, she added.

“It was a sweeping innovation for us to have to do,” Fredriksen said. “Everything works in concert … to stay below that threshold and with a cushion so we never even have to get close.”

Meeting these standards helps Consol avoid a lengthier permitting review and costly computer modeling and conservation projects to offset the pollution, said Jim Thompson, Allegheny County's deputy director of environmental health. At this rate, the pollution would be negligible, he said.

If Consol hits the limits, which account for truck exhaust emissions, drilling would have to stop, Fredriksen said.

“It's a very big deal,” Thompson said about the improvements, noting that diesel emissions are carcinogens.

About two dozen people attended a two-hour workshop intended to explain that project's impact.

“I didn't even know they'd have the technology to do that,” Rocky Zagari, 53, of Smith said of Consol's electric rig plan. “I think they're on top of it.”

Consol has been meeting with the Federal Aviation Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, Army Corps of Engineers and the Fish and Wildlife Service twice a month about the project, Consol spokesman Tommy Johnson said. It has to submit a final assessment Jan. 9.

The report should become public in February or March, company officials said.

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

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