Allegheny County parks considered for drilling

| Wednesday, June 12, 2013, 11:32 p.m.

Allegheny County parks could have their first shale gas wells in less than a year, officials said Wednesday.

Deer Lakes Park could get three wells early next year, said Michael Hillebrand, executive vice president at Huntley & Huntley Inc. The Monroeville company is working with Range Resources Corp. to build a pad for three wells outside the park and offered to drill under the park, too, from the same spot. They could reach the entire park from outside its borders, Hillebrand said.

Councilman Nick Futules, D-Oakmont, head of County Council's parks committee, supports the idea. County Executive Rich Fitzgerald wouldn't comment on the company's offer.

“I'm not against it. They own all the property around the park,” said Futules, who has personal agreements with Huntley & Huntley for shallow natural gas wells on his own properties. “Nothing will be on the park. If they get permission, they'd have to go underground and give (the county) royalties.”

Hillebrand declined to discuss financial terms. Fitzgerald wouldn't confirm negotiations, except to say he's met with several gas companies, including Huntley & Huntley, to talk about Marcellus shale drilling on county land. Both Hillebrand and Fitzgerald said drilling is less likely in South Park and North Park amid suburban development, but Fitzgerald pointed out other parks have more room.

The county signed its first gas deal this year when lawmakers agreed to let the Airport Authority lease about 9,000 acres at Pittsburgh International Airport to Consol Energy. The authority expects to receive about $500 million in gas royalties and fees over the life of the deal. That includes a $5,000-per-acre bonus up front, $3.7 million surface rent for well pads and 18 percent royalties on the gas.

The deal did not happen without opposition, and Deer Lakes advocates are also showing early signs of concern.

Elizabeth Klevens, 43, of Indiana Township and her husband run the Facebook page Friends of Deer Lakes Park and help maintain trails in the park. She is worried that drilling could harm water quality in the park, particularly three popular fishing lakes.

“My feeling about any of the gas drilling is that it's going too fast and there's not enough research how it will affect water supplies. It's good money for the parks, so I understand why (they're considering it),” Klevens said.

The Deer Lakes deal probably would produce less money than the airport's in part because it's a much smaller parcel — 1,180 acres spanning Frazer and West Deer. Several county leaders have pushed the idea of park drilling for years, dating back to Executive Dan Onorato's administration.

“Obviously we did the deal with the airport, and I've said we'll take a look at any county land,” Fitzgerald said. “At least we want to look into whether it's worth it or not.”

Huntley & Huntley has been encouraging drilling on public land. Company officials this month offered to drill in Murrysville Community Park as early as 2018. They once even talked to Onorato about drilling conventional wells in Boyce Park in the eastern part of the county, Hillebrand said.

The Deer Lakes proposal is moving forward because of other work Huntley and Range are doing nearby. Their joint venture has 19 wells in Frazer and Fawn, according to state records. They have 13 wells planned nearby in Allegheny and Butler counties, Hillebrand said.

The gas in Deer Lakes is pure methane natural gas. It lacks the ethane, propane and other liquid gases that likely make the gas at the airport more valuable, he added. But it is easily accessible, with spacious farmland outside the park and a connection to a major natural gas pipeline nearby, he said.

“(Deer Lakes is) just a perfect storm to be considered,” Hillebrand said. “If there's anybody who can get much of the Marcellus under this park, it's the Range-Huntley venture. And in a way that's not going to disturb … the park, in our opinion, that's a no-brainer.”

Bobby Kerlik and Timothy Puko are staff writers with Trib Total Media.

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