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Pennsylvania County Council Forced to Consider Another Drilling Moratorium

A Pennsylvania citizens group has succeeded in landing a proposed ordinance on the Allegheny County Council's agenda that would impose a two-year moratorium on natural gas drilling on or under nearly all county-owned parkland.

Last month, Protect Our Parks submitted the ordinance, along with a petition including 2,000 signatures to the council, which was found to comply with county law last week. The legislation is expected to be formally introduced for consideration at a council meeting on Tuesday.

The measure comes six months after council members approved a lease by a vote of 9-5, allowing Range Resources Corp. to drill for natural gas underneath the 1,180 acre Deer Lakes Park, about 20 miles northeast of Pittsburgh (see Shale DailyMay 8). At the time that lease was approved, Protect Our Parks vowed to fight against it.

The group's ordinance would ban "drilling, exploration, leasing or other contract authorization, execution, or surface or subsurface development" in eight of the county's nine parks. It would also require the county to conduct, and make available to the public, "an analysis of the economic costs and benefits of drilling operations in and around Deer Lakes Park."

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald's spokeswoman Amie Downs said the council will likely send the ordinance to committee for further review at its meeting on Tuesday. She also said "if such legislation were to pass, [Fitzgerald] would veto it."

"This ordinance, as a matter of fact, was offered by a council member last year and only received two votes," she said. "While I'm not certain if it's exactly the same bill, this effort is being led by Protect Our Parks and is pretty much the same as what was voted on previously."

Last year, the council voted against a three-year ban on natural gas drilling in county parks, with just two members, the bill's sponsor, Barbara Daly Danko, and co-sponsor Bill Robinson, voting in favor of the moratorium. Danko and Robinson were also among the five members that voted against Range Resources' proposal.

Allegheny County owns about 12,000 acres of parkland and while there has been some consideration given to opening up more land to drilling, Fitzgerald and other top officials there have indicated that they are against such development for the time being. Downs said Fitzgerald wants to monitor the Deer Lakes project and another being undertaken by Consol Energy Inc. at the Pittsburgh International Airport that was approved by the county in February 2013 (see Shale DailyFeb. 21, 2013).

"He believes that blanket legislation sends a bad message to the industry and is a bad precedent. Each opportunity should be considered on a case-by-case basis," Downs said. "In the case of the Deer Lakes Park proposal, we were able to enter a lease that extends environmental protections to those communities that would not have been possible.

"That being said, the Executive has indicated that he has no intent of considering other drilling opportunities in the county at this time," she added. "He wants to see how the two current drilling operations will play out before moving forward with anything else."

Range plans to drill up to five wells at Deer Lakes Park. The laterals would extend under the park's property, but drilling is barred inside the park. The lease also sets forth some stringent conditions, including additional water testing and a provision that requires the company to host two job fairs in the county, among other things (see Shale DailyMarch 18).

Range spokesman Matt Pitzarella said the company plans to begin the project sometime next year. When asked if Protect Our Parks legislative efforts are in any way affecting those plans, Pitzarella didn't comment further.

The group's ordinance comes at a time when residents and environmental groups in townships across the state are challenging the unconventional oil and gas industry's plans for development (see related story). Opposition groups were emboldened by last year's landmark state Supreme Court ruling that stripped the state of some of its regulatory authority and gave more back to municipalities (see Shale DailyDec. 20).

"Several council members, as well as county Executive Rich Fitzgerald, have publicly stated that they do not want to initiate fracking activity in the other parks until there is a thorough evaluation of the activity at Deer Lakes Park," said Protect Our Parks member Joni Rabinowitz in a statement issued to local news media after the petition was submitted last month. "This ordinance will put those statements into law, and we are confident council will vote for it."

Unconventional oil and natural gas development in Allegheny County has been slow compared to the rest of Pennsylvania. The county accounted for less than 2% of all unconventional drilling permits issued by the state every year since 2008. According to Baker Hughes data, there have not been more than two drilling rigs working in Allegheny County in any week since the beginning of 2012. However, local activity has been picking up in recent quarters; 49 drilling permits have been issued in the county so far this year, nearly double the 25 permits issued for all of 2013.

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