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Drilling for natural gas under Deer Lakes Park expected to start this year

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How they voted

Allegheny County Council approved drilling under Deer Lakes Park by a 9-5 vote.

FOR:

President John DeFazio, D-Shaler; Vice President Nick Futules, D-Oakmont; Councilman Ed Kress, R-Shaler; Tom Baker, R-Ross; Jim Ellenbogen, D-Banksville; Michael Finnerty, D-Scott; John Palmiere, D-Baldwin Township; Chuck Martoni, D-Swissvale; Bob Macey, D-West Mifflin

Against:

Barbara Daly Danko, D-Regent Square; Heather Heidelbaugh, R-Mt. Lebanon; Sue Means, R-Bethel Park; Jan Rea, R-McCandless; Bill Robinson, D-Hill District

Abstained:

Amanda Green-Hawkins, D-Stanton Heights

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Saucer-sized horizontal wells likely will bore more than a mile beneath Allegheny County's Deer Lakes Park by the end of the year and could pave the way for natural gas development under more county parks and publicly owned land, environmental groups and industry analysts said.

County Council voted 9-5 just after midnight on Wednesday in a seven-hour meeting to approve a proposal from Range Resources Corp. and Huntley & Huntley to drill under the 1,180-acre park in West Deer and Frazer.

“This is going to be the road map,” said Steven Baicker-McKee, an energy attorney and Duquesne University law professor. “Other communities will likely use this lease as a starting point for formulating their demands, and I think if they have attractive properties, companies will be willing to negotiate. ... I can't imagine they wouldn't.”

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who orchestrated the deal, said he has no plan to explore natural gas development in other county parks. He wants to monitor gas projects under Deer Lakes Park and at the Pittsburgh International Airport first.

Consol Energy Inc. has started building well pads on airport property as part of a deal potentially worth $500 million. The Deer Lakes proposal could bring the county $60 million to $70 million.

Neither Consol nor Range, both with offices in Cecil, plans to expand to other county parks, the companies said.

Active horizontal gas wells dot land surrounding the county-owned Settler's Cabin, South Park, White Oak and Round Hill parks. Huntley & Huntley and EQT Corp. are working in Elizabeth Township, near Round Hill Park, to secure leases with landowners.

EQT did not return calls for comment. Huntley & Huntley officials said their interest in Elizabeth and surrounding townships is based on geologic potential and not whether a park is nearby.

“There is so much overreach by this industry. If I were them, I would pay attention to the backlash,” said Cindy Dunn, president of PennFuture, which objected to drilling in state forests and to the Deer Lakes deal. “It potentially sets the stage for more of this, and I think it's an unfortunate precedent.”

Dunn hopes the county will not open other parks to drilling, such as North Park or South Park, and that the nine-month public battle over drilling at Deer Lakes Park serves as a deterrent.

Kent Moors, executive chair of the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh's global energy symposium, said natural gas development is a local decision.

“This is more put your foot in the door and see what happens,” Moors said of the Deer Lakes deal, adding its value remains to be seen. “You've got the first agreement. You've got the first exception to the rule, but once again, this depends on what localities are willing to accept.”

Allegheny County's vote will have no bearing on how much Murrysville in Westmoreland County is willing to accept, said Joan Kearns, the municipality's council president. Murrysville Council is expected to consider whether to seek proposals for drilling under its community park at a meeting on Wednesday.

“What Allegheny County does and what we do are not connected in any way,” Kearns said.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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