Western Pa. counties weigh shale gas drilling on public land

| Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

County governments are considering leasing public land or mineral rights for shale gas drilling to raise money.

Beaver County commissioners have begun marketing county land, including 1,400 acres in its biggest park, for drilling as it struggles with its finances. Allegheny County last month received a proposal from Range Resources and Huntley and Huntley to drill underneath Deer Lakes Park.

Officials in Washington and Butler counties are looking, too.

“There's an opportunity for money, but on the other hand, we're stewards of this land,” said Doug Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania. “I wouldn't say there's a county saying, ‘OK, we need cash. Let's go and sign a lease.' A lot of this is exploration, seeing if it's a good fit for the county.”

Critics said the long-term effects of shale gas drilling could be far more costly than what county governments earn in royalties.

“The appeal is that (counties) have a large piece of contiguous acreage that is always appealing to operators,” said Patrick Creighton, spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition. “But at the same time, from the other side of the table, (local governments) are looking for new revenue streams.”

“There has to be some sort of realization of the risks,” which could include damage to the environment and health risks to nearby residents, said Anthony Ingraffea, an engineering professor at Cornell University who specializes in studying shale gas fracturing processes. “They have to balance the alleged financial benefits against the effects that could be done to residents.”

Fears that drilling could damage the environment are unfounded, Creighton said. In many cases, horizontal drilling is done about a mile underground, so the park surface is not damaged, he said.

The state Department of Environmental Protection regulates drill sites.

Beaver County commissioners in October hired Co-eXprise to solicit proposals from natural gas and other companies to allow drilling beneath Bradys Run Park and at Economy and Brush Creek parks.

Commissioners don't know whether companies would drill directly on county-owned land or conduct horizontal drilling from off county property.

“We know the gas is there, but we don't want the well dug in the middle of the park,” Commission Chairman Tony Amadio said. “We're trying to be really restrictive in what we would allow.”

The county could earn $4 million from the sale of drilling rights and 17 percent or 18 percent in royalties, he said.

Allegheny County officials hope to raise about $500 million through an agreement with Consol Energy, which would use six well pads to drill 47 wells on Pittsburgh International Airport property. Council in February agreed to lease more than 9,000 acres surrounding the Findlay airport, with the money earmarked to reduce gate fees to attract more flights, make airport improvements and finance land development.

Butler County got more than $500,000 by selling rights for drilling under Sunnyview nursing home and will receive royalties after drilling beings.

Commission Chairman Bill McCarrier said Butler County gets federal funding for Alameda Park, and therefore can't permit well pads there. Horizontal drilling from well pads located outside the park is permitted, however, so officials have been marketing the mineral rights. Several parties are interested, he said.

Minority Commissioner James Eckstein said he would favor drilling “as long as it's not in the park or not near any schools.”

Washington County received $18 million in royalties in the past five years to drill in Cross Creek. Commissioners last week sought proposals to drill underneath Mingo Creek Park.

Companies haven't approached Westmoreland County officials about drilling, said Malcolm Sias, county director of parks and recreation. Industry officials said at a September conference that the gas in Westmoreland County is more “dry,” containing just methane and not the more lucrative “wet” gas that also contains butane and ethane.

Six to eight natural gas wells on county park land bring Westmoreland $17,000 to $18,000 a year, Sias said. The county owns the park land, but not the mineral rights, he said.

Natural gas has been extracted from state forests since 1947, according to the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The state has issued leases for nearly 385,500 acres of forest land. Since 2008, it has approved 224 well pads and 941 shale gas wells, and 215 wells have been drilled as of Sept. 1. The state has earned about $80 million in royalties.

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or bvidonic@tribweb.com.

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